HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam announced Monday that she will step down in June, ending a divisive term that saw democracy protests squashed and strict pandemic curbs plunge the business hub into international isolation. Ending months of speculation, Lam confirmed she would not seek a second term when a committee made up of the city’s political elite chooses a new leader next month. “I will complete my five-year term as chief executive on June 30, and officially conclude my 42-year career in government,” Lam told reporters. Lam said China’s leaders “understood and respected” her choice not to seek another term and that she wanted to spend more time with her family.

The 64-year-old had dodged questions for months over her future and during Monday’s announcement she revealed that she had informed Beijing of her plans to quit more than a year ago. A career bureaucrat, Lam became Hong Kong’s first woman leader in 2017 but she is on track to leave office with record-low approval ratings. Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Baptist University, said Hong Kong leaders have always suffered from a “chronic legitimacy crisis” because they are not popularly elected. But Lam had lost support across the political spectrum. “Not merely among the pro-democracy citizens but also increasingly among the pro-Beijing camp as she has done such a terrible job with the pandemic,” he told AFP.

Security tsar next leader?

Hong Kongers and businesses based in the finance hub currently have little clarity on who will be the next leader at a time when Beijing is increasingly calling the shots directly. The chief executive position is not popularly elected, something that years of democracy protests failed to change. Instead, the position is selected by a 1,500-strong pro-Beijing committee, the equivalent of 0.02 percent of the city’s 7.4 million population.

The next chief executive will be chosen on May 8 but so far no one with a realistic prospect has publicly thrown their hat into the ring. Hong Kong’s number-two official, John Lee, who has a background in the security services, has been tipped by local press as the most likely contender.

Another potential front runner is finance chief Paul Chan. Lam’s successor will take office on July 1, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover by Britain to China. Supporters saw Lam as a staunch Beijing loyalist who steered the city through huge democracy protests and a debilitating pandemic.

Starry Lee, who leads Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing party the DAB, described Lam on Monday as a “hard-working” official. “Her merit... should be left to history to judge,” she said. Critics, including many Western powers, viewed Lam as someone who oversaw the collapse of Hong Kong’s political freedoms and its reputation as a stable regional business hub.

Protests and pandemic

After huge and sometimes violent protests swept Hong Kong in 2019 Beijing responded with a crackdown that has remoulded the once-outspoken city into a mirror of the authoritarian mainland. Lam became the first Hong Kong leader to be sanctioned by the United States, because of her support for the crackdown, which has seen most of the city’s prominent democracy supporters arrested, jailed or flee overseas.

Her administration also hewed to China’s zero-COVID model, implementing some of the world’s toughest anti-coronavirus measures and exasperating international businesses. The largely closed borders and strict quarantine rules kept infections at bay for some two years at the expense of Hong Kong being cut off internationally.

But the strategy collapsed when the highly transmissible Omicron variant broke through earlier this year leaving Hong Kong with one of the developed world’s highest fatality rates. Hong Kongers have been leaving the city over the last two years at a rate not seen since the period before the handover. Thousands of foreign residents have also departed, especially in the first quarter of this year when the Omicron outbreak raged and it became clear the city would remain cut off. Hong Kong’s stock exchange was trading up two percent following Lam’s announcement.

While the return of protests are unlikely in the current draconian political climate, Lam’s successor will need to reboot business confidence and tackle perennial Hong Kong problems such as a dismal shortage of housing. But Lam predicted on Monday that whoever replaces her will have an easier ride. “Compared to this term of government, the next government will be seeing a more stable political environment,” she told reporters. - AFP