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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam will not run for a second term, leaving a job that pays more than the U.S. presidency

April 4, 2022, 9:47 AM UTC

Hong Kong’s top government official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, confirmed she won’t run for a second term in the city’s top spot, telling media she’s stepping down to spend time with her family.

“They think it is time for me to go home,” Lam said on Monday. “Family is the most important part of me.”

But Lam is not leaving the chief executive role as she inherited it. During her five-year tenure, Lam’s approval rating sank to the lowest of any chief executive since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, after the 42-year government veteran led the city into a political crisis, sparking widespread protests and forcing legal reforms that have fundamentally altered the city’s political climate and infrastructure.

Whoever succeeds Lam as the city’s top official will have an onerous task ahead of reforming the city’s international image, while assuring watchdogs in Beijing that Hong Kong is a city run by “patriots.”

Hong Kong protests

In 2019, Lam tried to push a law through the city’s legislature that would have made extradition to mainland China legally possible. The controversial move sparked the largest public protests in opposition to government policy since the 1997 handover.

At first, peaceful protests witnessed millions of Hong Kongers marching through the streets to voice their opposition. But the marches eventually descended into months of pitched battles between protesters and police—straining the local economy and tarnishing Hong Kong’s image as an international financial hub.

Lam’s government failed to curb the protests, which only subsided when the pandemic set in in early 2020. Later that year, China’s central government in Beijing imposed a national security law (NSL) over Hong Kong, giving local authorities more power to crack down on dissent.

Hong Kong police have used the NSL to arrest dozens of members of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, chiefly charging them with “subversion” for attempting to organize an unofficial primary election. Facing the threat of arrest under Hong Kong’s nebulous NSL, many pro-democracy groups have disbanded, leaving pro-establishment parties as the dominant political force in the city.

On Monday, local media reported that the incumbent government’s No. 2 official, Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu, is preparing to run for the top spot, replacing Lam as chief executive. During the protests in 2019, Lee served as the city’s secretary for security, or chief of police, capping a decades-long career in the local police force.

Electoral reform

But the race to replace Lam as chief executive is unlikely to be much of a contest. Hong Kong does not have universal suffrage, in which each citizen has an equal vote in electing the government. And last year Beijing reformed Hong Kong’s electoral process to ensure that only Beijing-approved “patriots” were eligible to run for office.  

In Hong Kong, candidates for chief executive must be vetted by Hong Kong’s Election Committee, a body of 1,500 quasi-elected elites, which Beijing revamped last year to ensure its own appointees have a greater presence. After approving candidates for the chief executive position, the Election Committee, representing 0.2% of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population, will vote on which one wins.

Serving as Hong Kong’s top political official is a lucrative gig. The chief executive role pays roughly $672,000 in annual salary—more than the $400,000 pay packet earned by the president of the United States. In 2020 Lam said she was forced to take her hefty salary in cash, after the U.S. sanctioned her for “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy” and restricting freedom of speech in the city in the wake of widespread anti-government protests.

U.S. sanctions against Lam won’t automatically extend to her successor, so at least Hong Kong’s next chief executive won’t have piles of cash stashed in his or her house, as Lam claimed she did after banks allegedly cut her off to comply with U.S. sanctions. But Hong Kong’s next leader will inherit rule over a society with little faith in the political class, and where apparatchiks in Beijing are asserting greater control over the city’s local affairs.

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