Beijing has drawn up plans to replace Hong Kong's beleaguered Chief Executive Carrie Lam with an "interim leader", the Financial Times reported yesterday, citing people briefed on the deliberations.
Should Chinese President Xi Jinping sign off on the plan, Mrs Lam's successor would be installed by March next year and serve out the rest of her term, due to end in 2022.
The report said that potential candidates include the Hong Kong Monetary Authority's former head Norman Chan and the city's former No. 2 official Henry Tang, who was a candidate for the chief executive post in 2012.
In leaked remarks released last month by Reuters, Mrs Lam said it was "unforgivable" for a chief executive to cause such havoc to Hong Kong, adding that she would resign if she had the choice.
She made the remarks to a group of business people during a closed-door meeting.
When approached by The Straits Times, the Chief Executive's Office said it does not comment on speculation. China's Foreign Ministry yesterday rejected the report as "a political rumour with ulterior motives".
"The central government firmly supports Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam... to put an end to violence and chaos and restore order as soon as possible," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Hong Kong has been roiled by nearly five months of unrest since Mrs Lam tried to introduce a contentious extradition Bill, which would have allowed for the handover of fugitives to several jurisdictions, including mainland China.
This exacerbated fears that the city's relative freedoms as compared with the rest of the country were quickly eroding, drawing millions to the streets in protest.
Her handling of the incident has been marked by a series of missteps, including attempting to push through the Bill earlier this year despite widespread public opposition.
While the Bill was formally withdrawn yesterday, the protests have evolved into a movement calling for more democracy.
Protesters are also unhappy with what they say is the police's excessive use of force.
Mrs Lam's use of a colonial-era emergency law to ban face masks at public gatherings, punishable by up to a year in jail, has also done little to stem the unrest that has exposed deep fissures in society.
The economy has been hit hard, with Hong Kong entering a technical recession for the first time last month as tourists, a major source of income, have been staying away.
In a policy speech last week, Mrs Lam also attempted to assuage public unhappiness by addressing economic concerns, including making it easier for first-time home buyers to get mortgages, increasing land supply and giving annual grants to students, as well as more subsidies for public transport.
But there was nothing to address protesters' demands, which include granting amnesty to those arrested for rioting, an independent inquiry on police actions and universal suffrage.
"I don't think replacing Carrie Lam could solve the problem completely," student Joyce Ho, 18, told Agence France-Presse.
"If the government can respond to the five demands, I believe Hong Kongers would stop (the protests)."