Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that she had never told Beijing she wanted to resign and it was her choice to stay in the top government job to try to help end the city’s chaotic situation.

Lam’s comments came after an audio recording obtained by Reuters had the Hong Kong leader saying she had caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the city’s political crisis.

“If I have a choice, the first thing [I would do] is to quit, having made a deep apology,” Lam said in English. “So I make a plea to you for your forgiveness.”

Lam allegedly made the remarks in a closed-door meeting with a group of businesspeople last week.

Protesters block key roads in Admiralty on July 1. Photo: Asia Times

Clashes between protesters and police have increased since a political crisis reared in early June over the government’s plan to amend the extradition law. At times, police have used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons against protesters while the latter have resisted by throwing stones and molotov cocktails.

About 1,100 people have been arrested as the demonstrations have evolved into a wider campaign for democracy that has become the biggest challenge to China’s rule over Hong Kong since the 1997 handover from Britain.

On Tuesday morning, Lam spoke to the media before the weekly Executive Council meeting. She said release of the recording to the public after a lunch with businesspeople last week was “unacceptable.”

Claims that she or her colleagues had leaked the sound clip to the media were unfounded, she said, while participants in the closed-door meeting had also agreed to a Chatham House rule that they would not quote or disclose the conversations they had.

‘Spiritual journey’

“From the beginning to now, I have never tendered a resignation to the central government,” she said. “I have not even contemplated discussing a resignation with the central government.”

The reported ‘conflict’ – that she wanted to resign but the central government had refused to accept that – did not exist, Lam said. She said she only wanted to honestly share her “spiritual journey” to participants in a private meeting after protests had dragged on for more than two months.

It was easy to quit but it was her choice “not to resign”.

“I told myself repeatedly in the last three months that I and my team should stay on to help Hong Kong,” Lam said.

In the recording, she also said the central government had no plan to send in the People’s Liberation Army troops to Hong Kong, and that it also had no expectation of the Hong Kong government containing the situation within a short period of time.

She said if disruptions still continue on October 1, China’s national day, the Hong Kong government would go for a “modest but solemn type of celebrations.”

‘Limited room’ to move

She admitted that she now has “very limited” room to resolve the crisis because the unrest has become a national security and sovereignty issue for China amid rising tensions with the United States.

She said Hong Kong’s economy, tourism and ability to stage initial public offerings on the stock market would suffer in short term but the central government would launch supportive measures after “everything has been settled.”

There was a mixed response to her latest remarks.

‘Unforgivable havoc’

Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said Carrie Lam was the biggest sinner in Hong Kong’s history – she wanted to stay in her position after causing “unforgivable havoc.”

But Starry Lee Wai-king, chairperson of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said it was appropriate for Carrie Lam to carry on as new problems would be created if no one was willing to lead the city government.

Former Liberal Party leader James Tien Pei-chun. Photo: RTHK

Debate about Lam was sparked by former Liberal Party leader James Tien Pei-chun, who was quoted in a report published by the Hong Kong Economic Journal on August 30 as saying the central government should allow the city leader to resign to help calm the situation in Hong Kong.

Tien said a lot of tycoons who voted for Lam in 2017 agreed that Beijing should allow the city chief to step down. He said protests had been intensifying since early June and hurting the city’s economy while Lam’s popularity had hit an historic low.

It did not matter who takes the Hong Kong leader’s job, Tien said.

On Tuesday, Yang Guang, spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), told a press conference in Beijing that the top priority now is to stop violence in Hong Kong. He said all sectors in the city should support Carrie Lam to contain the situation and restore law and order.

Commenting on whether the central government had a deadline to contain the situation, HKMAO spokeswoman Xu Luying said the violent protests should be stopped “as soon as possible.”

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