The city's embattled leader Carrie Lam has strongly denied contents of a leaked audio recording in which she said she would quit if she had a choice, but stopped short of clarifying if it was because Beijing did not allow her to.
Speaking before the weekly Executive Council session, the Hong Kong Chief Executive said yesterday that the leaked audio of the private conversation at a lunch was taken out of context.
"I have never, I have never tendered a resignation to the Central People's Government. I have not even contemplated to discuss a resignation with the Central People's Government. The choice of not resigning is my own choice," she said yesterday.
Mrs Lam explained that in the private chat, she made the point that "given the very difficult circumstances, it might have been an easy choice to leave", but that she needed to stay on to help Hong Kong through difficult times.
"I know it is not going to be an easy path, and that is why I said that I have not given myself the choice to take an easier path - and that is to leave. I would rather stay on and walk this path together with my team and with the people of Hong Kong," she said.
The leader, who is in the third year of a five-year term, added that she was and still is "very disappointed" that her comments, made in confidence under Chatham House rules were recorded and leaked to the media.
Asked if she was the one who leaked the taped audio, Mrs Lam flatly dismissed the suggestion, saying it is "absolutely unfounded".
On Monday, Reuters reported Mrs Lam as saying in the recording that "for a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable", and she would quit if she had a choice. The remarks were reportedly made last week to a group of business people.
The recording, now available online, had her saying: "If I have a choice, the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology."
Mrs Lam said in the recording that she now has "very limited" room to resolve the crisis as the unrest is now a national security and sovereignty issue for China amid rising tensions with the United States, that Beijing had not imposed a deadline for ending the crisis, and that China had "absolutely no plan" to deploy People's Liberation Army troops to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong's unrest - the 13th straight week of escalated protests since June 9 - was triggered by Mrs Lam's proposal to pass a Bill that would let Hong Kong extradite suspects to jurisdictions including mainland China. But many Hong Kongers do not trust the Chinese system and fear people sent over will not get a fair trial. The extradition Bill has been suspended, but protesters want it to be withdrawn.
Growing anger over the government's inaction in the past three months, compounded by allegations of excessive use of force by the police, meant that what started out as an anti-extradition Bill protest has blown up into a violent anti-government movement.
Associate Professor Dixon Sing of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology noted that Mrs Lam "was playing with words" yesterday. "One could refrain from tendering resignation and at the same time, one could have asked Beijing verbally whether she could resign," he said.
Dr Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong said the leaked audio proves that "Carrie Lam's is a lame duck government" despite her denying ever handing in her resignation. He added: "Beijing not accepting her resignation does not mean she will be given the requisite powers to handle the situation, so this is very sad and very bad for Hong Kong."
Dr Lam also noted that if Mrs Lam is ready to quit, the platform for dialogue she recently pledged to build "might turn to nothing because people realise she doesn't have power and doesn't represent Beijing". He believes Beijing's refusal to compromise will frustrate radical protesters, who are likely to escalate their actions, in turn justifying more arrests.
Asked about the way forward, Prof Sing thinks it depends on how things play out between the hardline and peaceful protesters in Hong Kong.