DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – A confident Carrie Lam said on Wednesday that Hong Kong had several crises to manage, but insisted she was staying on as the Chinese-ruled city’s leader, dismissing calls to step down.
At times laughing and smiling, Beijing-backed Lam told the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos that she had to stay on to tackle an economic crisis and the coronavirus, which has killed 17 people in mainland China.
Lam is on a mission to the Swiss Alps to reassure global leaders meeting there that the Asian financial center is open for business, despite months of anti-government protests and “nothing is more important than the rule of law”.
“It would be very easy to just run away from a situation. It’s very difficult to govern and implement policies. For those who understand the political structure, leaving that position vacant would only create more confusion,” she said.
Lam’s remarks contrast with comments made in August. In a recording obtained by Reuters she told a private meeting of business people she had caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the crisis and would quit if allowed to do so.
The coronavirus could not come at a worse time for Hong Kong, whose status as a financial center has come under scrutiny as images of sometimes violent street clashes between police and protesters have been beamed live to the world since June.
“While people focus on what has happened in Hong Kong, what has not happened in the last months is massive bloodshed on Hong Kong streets…. A curfew has not happened. The gagging of the media has not happened,” Lam said.
Speaking hours after Hong Kong quarantined a man “highly suspected” to have contracted China’s new flu-like virus, Lam said robust processes were in place and the city had learned lessons from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 300 people in the city in 2003.
“My health colleagues are really on guard. With this rapid flow of people across the border we are vulnerable,” she added.
Tens of millions of Chinese start traveling this week to celebrate Lunar New Year, heightening fears of contagion of the coronavirus, which has killed 17 people in mainland China and rattled global markets.
Memories of the impact of SARS still haunt Hong Kong and any repeat would batter an economy that sank into recession in the third quarter as months of protests took a heavy toll.
Since its return to Beijing in 1997, the former British colony has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees it broad freedoms not seen in mainland China, including an independent judiciary and free press.
Some demonstrators accuse Beijing of meddling in the city’s affairs, which it denies.
The revolt in the global financial center has dealt a major setback to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who said in December Hong Kong’s situation in 2019 “was the most complex and difficult since its return to the motherland.”
Lam said Xi was “definitely” committed to the “one country, two systems” formula of governance, which was “sacrosanct”.
Reporting by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Alexander Smith