Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has faced a tumultuous five-year term defined by political upheaval and Covid-19, will not seek to extend her time in office, she confirmed Monday.
The decision was her “personal wish and aspiration” and was entirely driven by “family considerations,” said Lam in a news conference, a day after the nomination period for the post opened.
She added that she had informed Beijing of her decision in March last year during China’s annual parliamentary meeting. Her term ends on June 30.
“This will also mean I am finishing my 42 years of public service,” she said, adding that she has not decided on future plans.
Speculation has swirled on whether Lam, who has the lowest public approval rating seen since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, would run again in the May 8 leadership race.
Lam took office in 2017, promising to “repair” a divided society. But two years later, she became the focus of widespread anger and discontent, as millions took to the street to protest a controversial extradition bill with China.
Those protests soon came to represent larger fears among the public of growing Chinese influence and control over the semi-autonomous city.
And though Lam ultimately withdrew the bill months into the protests, by then it was too late to stem public fury, fueled by allegations of excessive force by police and calls for increased democracy.
The emergence of Covid-19 in early 2020, followed by the introduction of a national security law later that same year, brought an end to the protest movement.
The law, which was promulgated by Beijing, has come to define Lam’s tenure, transforming the city’s social and political landscape. Under the law, democracy activists and politicians have been arrested and many of Hong Kong’s largest unions, advocacy groups and media outlets have been dismantled.
And while Hong Kong was initially shielded from the worst of the pandemic, thanks to strict border controls and restrictions on daily life, new fast-spreading variants have plunged the city – and Lam’s administration – into crisis once more.
The city’s death rate per capita has been the highest in Asia and Oceania every day since February 28, driven in part by low vaccination rates among the elderly.
Though the peak appears to have passed, with new cases now declining day-by-day, the wave has reignited anger toward Lam and the government, who face accusations of poor preparation during a public health crisis two years in the making.
With the position of Chief Executive now up for grabs, local media has highlighted former police officer and Chief Secretary John Lee, and Financial Secretary Paul Chan, as potential contenders.
The Chief Executive will be selected by the Beijing-dominated Election Committee.
Last year, Beijing introduced sweeping electoral reforms, which gave local authorities greater powers to vet candidates and ensure that only “patriots” are allowed to stand as candidates. In June, a new loyalty oath was introduced for all Hong Kong elected officials – from local councilors to legislators – which impedes access to civil posts for pro-democracy candidates.
Several Western countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, have expressed concern over the drastic shifts in Hong Kong’s electoral system, with the US State Department saying in a recent report that China played an “unprecedented role in directing the outcome of the Hong Kong elections.”
Hong Kong’s government has hit back at both countries, insisting on Friday that the rights and freedoms of citizens are “well-protected.”