By Jessie Pang and Clare Jim
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday she had never asked the Chinese government to let her resign to end the Chinese-ruled city’s political crisis, responding to a Reuters report about a recording of her saying she would step down if she could.
China for its part expressed confidence in Lam and her government but said it would not sit idly by if the unrest threatened Chinese security and sovereignty.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of the former British colony since mid-June in sometimes violent protests against now-suspended draft legislation that could have seen people sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party controlled courts.
Lam told business leaders last week that she had caused “unforgivable havoc” by introducing the bill and that if she had a choice she would apologize and resign, according to a leaked audio recording.
Lam told a televised news conference that she had never considered asking to resign and that Beijing believed her government could solve the three-month-long crisis without China’s intervention.
“I have not even contemplated discussing a resignation with the central people’s government. The choice of resigning, it’s my own choice,” Lam said.
“I told myself repeatedly in the last three months that I and my team should stay on to help Hong Kong … That’s why I said that I have not given myself the choice to take an easier path and that is to leave.”
Lam added that she was disappointed that comments made in a private meeting, where she had been sharing the “journey of my heart”, had been leaked.
At a news conference given by China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, no questions were raised directly about the Lam tape, and a spokesman and spokeswoman did not refer to it or the Reuters story.
They denounced the violence and Western countries seeking to use the Hong Kong issue to interfere in China’s affairs, and reiterated that China would never tolerate Hong Kong independence or a leader who was not loyal to Beijing.
The central government firmly supported Lam and her government, they said. But it would not sit by forever if the violence continued, spokeswoman Xu Luying said.
“The central government will not allow chaos in Hong Kong to continue indefinitely,” she said.
“If the situation in Hong Kong continues to worsen and it becomes turmoil that cannot be controlled by the SAR government and endangers the country’s sovereignty and security, the central government will not sit idly by.”
SAR refers to the “special administrative region” of Hong Kong.
The Global Times, a widely read Chinese tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, denounced the Reuters story in an editorial on their website.
“Reuters and other Western media have been entangled in the fake news that ‘Carrie Lam’s resignation has not been approved’ for some time, a serious infringement of the bottom line of professional ethics.
“They are not objectively reporting facts.”
The growing unrest in Hong Kong has evolved into a broader call for Hong Kong to be granted greater autonomy by Beijing, which has often accused foreign powers, particularly the United States and Britain, of fomenting the unrest.
Comments on the Reuters story about Lam appeared to be censored on mainland Chinese social media, although state media covered Lam’s news conference.
In the audio recording, Lam said that her ability to resolve the crisis was “very, very limited” as she had to serve “two masters” and the issue had been elevated “to a national level”, a reference to the leadership in Beijing.
But Lam said on Tuesday that her government had the confidence of Beijing and could bring an end to unrest itself.
Hong Kong school and university students boycotted classes and held rallies for a second straight day, calling for what protesters call their “five demands”.
Other than the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill, protesters want the retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies, the release of all arrested demonstrators, an independent inquiry into the police and the right for Hongkongers to democratically choose their own leaders.
Under Hong Kong law, rioting can carry a 10-year prison sentence.
Lam has said she is open to dialogue with protesters but has made no concessions on these demands.
“I think Carrie Lam doesn’t have much power,” said Poon, a 21-year-old engineering student at Hong Kong University.
“No matter she can step down or not, it doesn’t matter. Chief executive is still chosen by the central government. What matters is she refuses to response to the five demands. She’s an irresponsible leader.”
The weekend was marred by some of the worst violence since the unrest escalated more than three months ago, with protesters burning barricades and throwing petrol bombs, and police retaliating with water cannon, tear gas and batons.
Thousands of protesters blocked roads and public transport links to Hong Kong airport on Sunday. Some then targeted the MTR subway station in nearby Tung Chung, ripping out turnstiles and smashing CCTV cameras, glass panels and lamps with metal poles.
Police have arrested more than 1,140 people since the protests began, including high-profile activists like Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the pro-democracy “Umbrella” movement five years ago that foreshadowed the current unrest.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees wide-ranging autonomy, including the right to protest and an independent judiciary.
The protesters fear those freedoms are being slowly eroded by Beijing, a charge China vehemently denies, saying China is its business and no one else’s.
With Hong Kong facing its first recession in a decade, speculation has grown that the city government may impose emergency laws, giving it extra powers over detentions, censorship and curfews.
Lam said her government was considering all legal avenues to solve the crisis.
(Reporting by Clare Jim, Donny Kwok, Jessie Pang, Farah Master, Felix Tam, Noah Sin, Twinnie Siu, Ben Blanchard and Beijing newsroom; Writing by Joe Brock and Nick Macfie; editing by Darren Schuettler)