‘If I had a choice’: Leaked audio suggests Lam can’t quit, can’t negotiate

Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to the press today following the leak of a sensitive conversation with the business community. Screengrab via Facebook/Apple Daily.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to the press today following the leak of a sensitive conversation with the business community. Screengrab via Facebook/Apple Daily.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam dropped bombshell after bombshell in a leaked recording published by Reuters last night, touching on everything from her own “unforgivable” handling of the crisis that has gripped the city for months, to the prospect — or lack thereof — of a possible intervention by the PLA.

The excerpted audio of her remarks, which came from a closed-door meeting with businesspeople last week, appeared to confirm a number of recent anonymously-sourced stories that Lam’s camp had sought to deny or downplay, including that she was unable to resign, and that her hands were effectively tied by Beijing when it comes to dealing with the long-running pro-democracy movement.

“I don’t want to spend your time, or waste your time, for you to ask me what went, or why it went wrong. But for a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong, is unforgivable. It’s just unforgivable,” Lam said in the recording. “If I had a choice, the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology, is to step down. So I make a plea to you for your forgiveness.”

The remarks lent credence to a Financial Times exclusive published in July that said Lam’s resignation had been rejected multiple times by Beijing, who had told the embattled leader to “to clean up the mess she created.”

Lam also touched on the prospect of Beijing intervening, a topic of much discussion in recent weeks as the mainland has increasingly hinted that it is ready and willing to consider using force to restore order in the city, particularly with sensitive National Day celebrations approaching on Oct. 1.

Lam, however, appeared to take some of the starch out of the heated rhetoric, telling the business community that Beijing “does not have a deadline” for resolving the ongoing crisis, even if it means embarrassing protests mar the National Day festivities.

“They know this will ripple on,” Lam said of the unrest, adding that officials were anticipating “a lot of disruptions” come Oct. 1. “So we are going for a modest, but solemn type of celebrations on the 1st of October, which means that [Beijing] and ourselves have no expectations that we will be able to clear up this thing by the 1st of October.”

“Another thing I want to assure you, that is my own feeling the pulse, and through discussions, CPG [central people’s government] has absolutely no plan to send in the PLA,” she added.

The mainland, she later added, was playing the long game when it comes to Hong Kong.

“They are willing to play it long, so you have no short-term solution. Hong Kong suffers, you lose tourism, economy, you lose your IPOs and so, but you can’t do much about it,” she told the audience. “But after everything has been settled, the country will be there to help with maybe positive measures, especially in the Greater Bay Area.”

Lam also touched on her own maddeningly passive response to the months of protests — which were set off by a controversial extradition bill, and have since expanded into a movement for broader democratic reform — insinuating that the ability to solve the crisis had gone above her pay grade.

“Once an issue has been elevated to a national level, to a sort of sovereignty and security level, let alone in the midst of this sort of unprecedented tension between the two big economies in the world, the room, the political room for the chief executive who, unfortunately, has to serve two masters by constitution… that political room for maneuvering is very, very, very limited.”

The comment appeared to confirm yet another recent report, this one by Reuters, that Lam had previously suggested conceding to some of protesters’ more politically viable demands as a potential way out of the crisis, only to be shot down by Beijing.

In the recording, Lam also takes time to address how the conflict raging in the streets has affected her personally, describing how she was no longer able to have her hair done.

“Nowadays, it’s extremely difficult for me to go out. I have not been on the streets, not in the shopping malls, can’t go to a hair salon, can’t do anything, because my whereabouts will be spread around the social media on Telegram and LIHKG, and you could expect a big crowd of black T-shirts and black-masked young people waiting for me,” she said.

Lam’s office declined to comment to Reuters on the substance of the remarks, but in a regularly scheduled press conference this morning, Lam said she was “very disappointed” the recording had been leaked, and denied that her camp had been behind the disclosure to shift blame for the intractable crisis to Beijing.

“I think that this is quite unacceptable,” she said. “To suggest that myself or the government has any role to play in this [leak], is absolutely unfounded.”

She also insisted that her remarks were not an indication that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy had been eroded by Beijing’s influence.

“I hope all Hong Kong people will see that we won’t deviate from ‘one country, two systems’ as a solution to today’s crisis,” she said. “There are no concerns about the end of one country two systems, or to Hong Kong’s high level of autonomy.”

She also again denied having ever tendered her resignation to the central government, maintaining that her statement that she would quit “if I had a choice” was in fact meant to suggest that it “might be an easy choice to leave,” but she had decided to stay on to “help Hong Kong.”

“I have never even contemplated to tender a resignation to the CPG. The choice not to resign is my own choice,” she said. “That’s why I said I had not given myself the easier choice.”

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