Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam told a group of businesspeople last week that she has caused "unforgivable havoc" by igniting the anti-government protests gripping the city - and that she would quit if she could.
Lam's also said during the closed-door meeting that she is now "very limited" in how she can resolve the ongoing crisis because the unrest has become a matter of national security and sovereignty for China, according to a 24-minute recording reviewed by Reuters.
"The political room for the chief executive who, unfortunately, has to serve two masters by constitution, that is the central people’s government and the people of Hong Kong, that political room for maneuvering is very, very, very limited," she said, speaking in English. "For a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable."
"If I have a choice ... the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology," she added.
Lam’s dramatic and at times anguished remarks offer the clearest view yet into the thinking of the Chinese leadership as it navigates the unrest in Hong Kong, the biggest political crisis to grip the country since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Hong Kong has been convulsed by sometimes violent protests and mass demonstrations since June, in response to a proposed law by Lam’s administration that would allow people suspected of crimes on the mainland to be extradited to face trial in Chinese courts. The law has been shelved, but Lam has been unable to end the upheaval. Protesters have expanded their demands to include complete withdrawal of the proposal, a concession her administration has so far refused. Large demonstrations wracked the city again over the weekend. -Reuters
She added that she was profoundly frustrated that she wasn't able "to reduce the pressure on my frontline police officers," or reach a political solution to "pacify the large number of peaceful protesters who are so angry with the government, with me in particular."
Lam's failure "to offer a political situation in order to relieve the tension" was the cause of her "biggest sadness," and has made her life miserable.
"Nowadays it is extremely difficult for me to go out," she told the group. "I have not been on the streets, not in shopping malls, can’t go to a hair salon. I can’t do anything because my whereabouts will be spread around social media."
If she were to appear in public, she said, “you could expect a big crowd of black T-shirts and black-masked young people waiting for me.” Many of the protesters wear black at demonstrations.
After enjoying relatively high popularity in the initial part of her tenure, Lam is now the least popular of any of the four leaders who have run Hong Kong since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, according to veteran pollster Robert Chung, who runs the Public Opinion Research Institute. -Reuters
We're guessing reports of undercover police officers acting as agents provocateurs, and police indiscriminately beating people aren't going to inspire much sympathy for Lam's plight.
Beijing isn't 'at the gates' according to Lam
Lam told the group that Beijing has not imposed any deadlines for ending the crisis ahead of the country's October 1st National Day celebrations, and that China had "absolutely no plan" to deploy the People's Liberation Army troops on the streets of Hong Kong - something the world has been watching for after the bloody events at Tiananmen Square in Beijing a generation ago. Lam told the attendees that Beijing is acutely aware of the potential damage to China's reputation if the military is used to quell the movement.
"They know that the price would be too huge to pay," said Lam, adding "They care about the country’s international profile ... It has taken China a long time to build up to that sort of international profile and to have some say, not only being a big economy but a responsible big economy, so to forsake all those positive developments is clearly not on their agenda."
According to Lam, China is "willing to play along" with the protests - even if it meant Hong Kong would suffer a short-term economic hit.
As Reuters notes, the protests in Hong Kong mark the biggest challenge to the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012. The unrest comes amid a slowing Chinese economy, escalating rivalry with the United States, and a 'tit-for-tat' trade war. The Taiwan issue has "further frayed relations between Beijing and Washington," according to the report.
Lam’s remarks are consistent with a Reuters report published on Friday that revealed how leaders in Beijing are effectively calling the shots on handling the crisis in Hong Kong. The Chinese government rejected a recent proposal by Lam to defuse the conflict that included withdrawing the extradition bill altogether, three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Asked about the report, China’s Foreign Ministry said that the central government “supports, respects and understands” Lam’s decision to suspend the bill. The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, denounced it as “fake.”
As protests escalated, Lam suspended the bill on June 15. Several weeks later, on July 9, she announced that it was “dead.” That failed to mollify the protesters, who expanded their demands to include an inquiry into police violence and democratic reform. Many have also called for an end to what they see as meddling by Beijing in the affairs of Hong Kong. -Reuters
Lam was picked as Hong Kong's Chief Executive in March 2017, vowing to "unite society" and local rifts within the city that remains "by far the freest city under Chinese rule," according to the report.
"Hong Kong is not dead yet, said Lam. "Maybe she is very, very sick, but she is not dead yet."