Carrie Lam: The controversial leader of Hong Kong

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The chief executive of Hong Kong had promised to be humble and to listen to the people

Carrie Lam, a skilled bureaucrat handpicked by Beijing to lead Hong Kong, has become one of the most divisive figures in the politically turbulent city.

The chief executive sparked months of protests last year after proposing a law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

She warned protesters not to push Hong Kong into an "abyss" as the rallies grew into a mass democracy movement even after the bill was withdrawn.

The city's first female leader went on to back the controversial national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in June.

A long-serving civil servant

Ms Lam, a Roman Catholic, was born into a working-class family in Hong Kong.

The 63-year-old is often described as a "workaholic", regularly sleeping just three or four hours a night.

She began her career in the civil service, joining as a fresh graduate from the University of Hong Kong in 1980.

Two years later she was sent to the University of Cambridge to study for a diploma in Development Studies. It's here she also met her future husband, the mathematician Lam Siu-por.

In 2004, Ms Lam was appointed as Director-General of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, a top role representing the city in the UK.

She returned to Hong Kong in 2006 and climbed up the ranks as an unassuming bureaucrat, known for her strong work ethic and drive.

The following year Ms Lam gave up her British nationality in order to serve as secretary for development.

Her husband and two children retained their British passports. Ms Lam's husband resides in the UK along with one of their sons. The other lives in mainland China.

The first female leader

The former civil servant was sworn into office as chief executive by Chinese President Xi Jinping on 1 July 2017, the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Beijing.

In her acceptance speech she 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."

She reportedly never backs down in a political battle, threatening to resign if she does not get her way. This tough stance has earned her the nickname the "good fighter" .

Media caption,
Carrie Lam: Hong Kong is inseparable from China

But her election was controversial in Hong Kong where the chief executive is not directly elected but chosen by a committee of 1,200 people who are said to represent the city.

She was the candidate favoured by Beijing and won with a total of 777 votes, a number that became one of her nicknames.

Political crisis

Ms Lam's time in office has been marred by the controversial extradition bill she proposed in 2019.

She argued it was necessary to protect the city against criminals. But many in the territory feared the law could be used to target political opponents of the Chinese state.

The bill triggered months of sometimes violent protests that grew into a broader movement for democracy including universal suffrage, a demand that was at the heart of the city's earlier 2014 Umbrella Movement.

Ms Lam became a lightening rod for the demonstrations with many calling for her resignation.

In a leaked audio recording of a private meeting last September she was heard blaming herself for igniting the political crisis and telling business leaders she would quit if she could. She later denied ever offering to resign.

Even after the chief executive eventually withdrew the bill the protests continued, petering out earlier this year as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
A protester trying to extinguish a fire at a university during some of the most intense clashes seen last year

Shortly after, Beijing proposed a controversial security law for Hong Kong that was swiftly imposed by June.

Protesters decried the legislation, calling it the "end of Hong Kong", and with it Ms Lam who they view as "China's puppet".

The law also triggered criticism from countries including the US and UK for eroding the freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong when it was returned to China in 1997.

But Ms Lam has defended the legislation, saying it was not all "doom and gloom".

"Compared with the national security laws of other countries, it is a rather mild law," she has said. "Its scope is not as broad as that in other countries and even China."