HONG KONG -- Hong Kong’s divisive leader, Carrie Lam, announced on Monday that she will not run for a second five-year term, ending her 42-year political career.
Lam presided over the city during its most politically turbulent years, which included the often-violent 2019 protests, the implementation of the National Security Law and most recently, her government's haphazard response to an omicron variant surge that took more than 8,000 lives since January.
Lam's term has left the former British colony a changed city from a free-wheeling bastion of free-speech and pre-eminent international financial center on Chinese soil to an isolated muted city strangled by both COVID restrictions and a relentless crackdown on dissent.
The chief executive said she informed Beijing at last year’s annual National People’s Congress meeting in March that she wouldn’t be running again.
Lam, 64, told reporters on Monday that she was prioritizing spending time with her family: “They think it is time for me to go home … This is what I have told the Central People’s Government. And they have expressed understanding.”
Hong Kong’s stock exchange climbed as much as 2% following her announcement.
Lam, Hong Kong's first female leader, thanked mainland Chinese authorities for their support during her tenure, saying she had faced “unprecedented pressure” due to the 2019 anti-government protests and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lam oversaw the implementation of a controversial security law that quashed dissent in the former British colony. A widespread crackdown on activism followed. Pro-democracy media outlets have been shut down and most opposition figures are now in jail or in self-exile. Lam faced U.S. sanctions for her role in the crackdown.
In recent weeks and months, Lam has drawn ire from the business community for Hong Kong’s rigid COVID policies and border measures, which have left the financial hub isolated since 2020.
When taking up the post back in 2017, Lam -- a devout Catholic -- said that God had called upon her: “From day one, I have said this opportunity is given by God.”
In her acceptance speech, Lam said: "Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustrations. My priority will be to heal the divide."
Her successor will be picked in May by a select election committee made up of Beijing loyalists. Local media are reporting that John Lee, the former security minister who led the response to the protests, is favored, but he has yet to declare his candidacy. Finance chief Paul Chan is also a potential front runner.
"Compared to this term of government, the next government will be seeing a more stable political environment," Lam said on Monday.