1 of 6 | Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced Monday that she would not seek another term as chief executive in next month's election. File Photo by Vivek Prakash/EPA-EFE
April 4 (UPI) -- Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong leader whose tenure saw massive street protests, a tightening of Beijing's control over the semi-autonomous city and a deadly recent surge of COVID-19 cases, announced Monday that she won't seek another term.
"I will not participate in the sixth election of the chief executive," Lam said at a press conference. "In other words, I will complete my five-year term as chief executive on June 30 this year, and will officially end my 42-year government service career."
The Beijing-favored politician took office in 2017 and has been the city's most unpopular leader since Britain handed control of Hong Kong over to China in 1997. The 64-year-old said Monday that she informed the mainland government of her decision and that they "expressed understanding."
Lam became the focal point of protests that brought millions to the streets in 2019 after she planned to push through a controversial bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China.
Although she ultimately backed down on the bill, larger pro-democracy protests roiled the city for several months and only subsided as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020.
Beijing responded by imposing a harsh national security law that clamped down on dissent and led to arrests of activists, opposition lawmakers and independent media figures. In 2020, the United States sanctioned Lam and ten other individuals for "undermining Hong Kong's autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens."
Lam also helped steer through an overhaul of the electoral system last year to consolidate more voting power into the hands of pro-Beijing lawmakers.
The outgoing chief executive, the first woman to hold the post, praised Beijing's support in her remarks Monday.
"Less than two years after I took office, because of the turmoil around the extradition law, social riots, the constant interference of external forces in Hong Kong affairs and the impact of the coronavirus epidemic, I was under unprecedented pressure," she said. "One of the key driving forces that supported me to overcome all the difficulties was the earnest support of the central government."
Under Lam, Hong Kong followed China's zero-COVID policy in fighting the pandemic by keeping borders tightly sealed and imposing strict quarantine and social distancing measures, drawing an outcry from local and international businesses headquartered in the global financial hub.
Despite the heavy-handed control, recent months saw an outbreak driven by the contagious Omicron variant overwhelm the city's hospitals and result in the highest death rates in the world. Indecision and mixed messages from Lam's government accelerated an exodus of residents from the city and brought an intervention from Beijing, likely sealing the chief executive's political fate.
On Monday, Lam said that her decision to retire from politics was not based on the criticisms she has faced but stemmed from a desire to spend more time with her family.
"This is not a question of evaluating my performance or the performance of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government in this term," Lam said. "This is a question of my personal wish and aspiration, and my personal wish and aspiration is entirely based on my family consideration."
Local media has reported that the city's No. 2 official, John Lee, is preparing to enter the race for chief executive, but Lam said she could not comment on his prospective candidacy.
Lee, a former police official, was Hong Kong's security minister during the pro-democracy protests of 2019 and oversaw an escalating police response that rights organizations condemned as brutal and heavy-handed. Lee was among the individuals sanctioned by Washington in 2020.
The chief executive election was originally scheduled for March 27 but was postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak and will be held on May 8. The vote is conducted by a 1,500-member committee composed of overwhelmingly pro-Beijing political and business figures.