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Hong Kong’s chief executive is disheartened, but no successor is in sight

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, speaking at a news conference in Hong Kong on Tuesday, said she had not resigned and had no intention of doing so.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, speaking at a news conference in Hong Kong on Tuesday, said she had not resigned and had no intention of doing so.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press

HONG KONG — Beleaguered after three months of increasingly violent street protests, Hong Kong’s chief executive said on Tuesday morning that her emotions were in turmoil but that she had not tendered her resignation and had no intention of stepping down.

“Even if my personal emotions are fluctuating greatly, the ultimate decision is in regard to Hong Kong citizens and whether I can help Hong Kong citizens and help Hong Kong out of this difficult situation,” Carrie Lam, the chief executive, said during her weekly news conference.

Senior Hong Kong officials and Beijing advisers have been saying for weeks that Lam is deeply unhappy in the job, but that Beijing’s leaders will not allow her to resign even if she decides that she wants to do so.


“She is very frustrated, very downhearted, at times even emotional, but she is also a very resolute person — she feels she has a job to do, she has a job entrusted to her by Beijing, and she intends to do it,” Ronny Tong, a member of Lam’s Executive Council, or Cabinet, said in an interview in late August.

Lau Siu-kai, vice chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semiofficial advisory body set up by Beijing, said: “After things settle down, there may be a reshuffle of the leadership team. But to do it now is seen by Beijing as a sign of weakness that would cause more riots to occur.”

After a summer of protests that began with huge marches and has evolved into battles in the streets and subway stations between masked protesters and the police, Lam has remained a very personal target for demonstrators. They assail her for having introduced a bill earlier this year that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to the opaque and often harsh judicial system of mainland China.


One of five demands by protesters has been that Lam must resign and that a successor be elected through universal suffrage. In an audio recording of a closed-door meeting last week between Lam and local businesspeople that was leaked to Reuters, Lam is heard to say that she longed to resign.

But one key obstacle to her doing so is that she lacks an heir apparent to run this fractious, semiautonomous territory of China. Beijing also remains opposed to allowing any general election in which prodemocracy candidates could run.

In the 22 years since Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, China’s leaders have alternated between choosing strongly pro-Beijing business leaders and more politically moderate former British civil servants. Before becoming chief executive two years ago, Lam was a lifetime civil servant in Hong Kong, rising to the second-highest job in the territory, which is chief secretary.

That means the pro-Beijing faction, which tends to take a much more hard-line stance against democracy protesters, is due to supply the next chief executive. But numerous people involved in succession discussions over the past month said that the choice is far from simple.

All of Hong Kong’s four chief executives so far, including Lam, have run into serious political difficulty. That makes it harder to predict whom Beijing might choose next.

Beijing has discouraged the Hong Kong government from accepting outright any of the five broader demands being made by the protesters, although the government has taken small steps toward partially meeting a few of them, Beijing advisers said.


“Things have gone beyond the so-called jurisdiction of the Hong Kong government — even though the whole thing was triggered by Carrie Lam — to become something that must be handled by Beijing,” Lau said.

In Beijing, officials from China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office again expressed support for Lam and her government and said that the central government believed that local authorities still had “the will and capability to end the violence and restore order.”

At the same time, Xu Luying, a spokeswoman for the office, noted that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress had the authority to declare a state of emergency that would allow the central government to intervene, if the situation deteriorated. “The central government will never sit idly by,” she said.

On the political front, Beijing’s favorite choice and heir apparent until early summer was the city’s financial secretary and third-ranking official, Paul Chan, said people familiar with the selection process. These people insisted on anonymity because of political sensitivities about discussing the subject before Beijing makes a decision.

Chan is a longtime accountant and the protégé of Leung Chun-ying, the fiercely pro-Beijing real estate surveyor who was Lam’s predecessor as chief executive of Hong Kong.

But political acrimony and violence in Hong Kong have severely hurt Chan’s chances, two people familiar with Beijing’s selection process said. Although skillful in small groups, Chan is a quiet businessman with limited experience in addressing crowds and the broader public — skills needed now.


Chan declined repeated requests this summer for an interview.

Another option for Beijing, if it wants a business leader, would seem to be Bernard Chan, the convener of Lam’s Executive Council. But Chan, the president of a Hong Kong insurance company, insists he has no desire to become chief executive.

“I have a business to run,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’m not willing to give up my business.”

Lacking a clear successor makes it even harder for Lam to step down.

“I have not even contemplated to discuss a resignation with the Central People’s Government,” Lam said on Tuesday, referring to China’s national government in Beijing. “The choice of not resigning is my own choice.”