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Embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam admitted that she sparked "huge havoc" that's plunged her city into political crisis not seen for more than a generation, according to a private conversation made public on Monday.
Speaking with extraordinary candor to a group of business leaders last week, Lam said her actions are directly responsible for months-long protests that have roiled the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, according to taped remarks obtained by Reuters.
"I don't want to spend your time or waste your time for you to ask me what went wrong," Lam said in the recorded remarks. "But for a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable. It's just unforgivable."
Earlier this year, Lam and Hong Kong lawmakers proposed an extradition treaty that could have sent Hong Kong residents — long accustomed to rule of law and an independent, open judiciary — to the mainland, and faced that nation's murky criminal justice system.
Hong Kong residents took to the streets in mass protest.
And even through Lam has shelved the extradition bill, the protests have morphed into a greater pro-democracy movement that's been marked by regular clashes with police and thinly veiled threats from Beijing.
"If I had a choice, the first thing (I would do) is to quit (after) having made a deep apology," she said in English-language remarks. "So I make a plea to you for your forgiveness."
The chief executive lamented being in a no-win situation, having to please both Beijing and the people of Hong Kong.
"The political room for the chief executive, who unfortunately has to serve two masters ... that is the Central People's Government and the people of Hong Kong, that political room for maneuvering is very, very, very limited," she said.
As the increasingly violent protests carry on, Beijing has stepped up its propaganda attacks on protesters and made vague threats of potential military action.
And while Lam said, "it would be naive of me to paint you a rosy picture that things will be fine or I have a deadline," she assured business leaders that Chinese tanks are not poised to roll through the former British colony.
She said China is playing "a long game" and has too much at stake to risk international condemnation of a bloody crackdown.
"Another thing I want to assure you, that is my own feeling the pulse, and thorough discussions, CPG (the Central People's Government) has absolutely no plans to send in the PLA (People's Liberation Army)," Lam said.
"They care about he country's international profile. It has taken China a long time to build up that sort of international profile and to have some say not only being a big economy but a responsible big economy so to forsake all those positive developments is clearly not on their agenda."
On a personal note, Lam said her personal life since protests broke out has become extremely sheltered.
Any desire Lam might have to go on a shopping trip or get hair done is completely out of the question as she'd be surrounded by young protesters wearing their unofficial uniform of black t-shirts with surgical masks or gas masks.
"Nowadays it's extremely difficult for me to go out. I have not been on the streets, not in shopping malls, can't go to a hair salon, can't do anything because my whereabouts will be spread around the social media ... and you could expect a big crowd of black t-shirts and black masked young people waiting for me," Lam said.
The chief executive's office confirmed to Reuters that she held two private meetings with business leaders last week. But Lam's representatives did not offer any additional comments.
Reuters published the audio on Monday as thousands of students boycotted, what should have been the first day of fall classes, staged mass protests around the city.
Protests over the weekend reached another point of escalation as police fired water cannons on the pro-democracy activists.
The former British colony was handed back to China in 1997, under a so-called "one country, two systems" formula. The deal was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong residents speech and political freedoms, for at least 50 years, that their mainland counterparts do not currently enjoy.
Hong Kong has not seen this kind of widespread, weeks-long turmoil since the pro-communist riots of 1967. Widely seen as a spillover from the Cultural Revolution in mainland China, demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong to oppose British colonial rule.