Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a news conference in Hong Kong, China, June 18, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Hong Kong: Carrie Lam vowed to heal divisions when she became Hong Kong’s leader, but her tenure has thrust the financial hub into unprecedented turmoil, sparking huge protests that saw parliament ransacked and leaving the city more divided than ever.

The 62-year-old devout Catholic took over in March 2017, but was not popularly elected.

Hong Kong’s leaders are instead chosen by a 1,200 strong committee stacked with Beijing loyalists, and Lam secured 777 votes — becoming the first woman elevated to the city’s top job.

In her acceptance speech she vowed to be more responsive to the city’s youngsters, who have been at the forefront of a campaign for greater democratic freedoms and measures to combat rising inequality.

“Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustrations,” she said in her acceptance speech.

“My priority will be to heal the divide.”

Two years on, Hong Kong is more polarised than at any time in its recent history following three weeks of massive anti-government rallies.

Then on Monday night — the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China — thousands of mostly young protesters rampaged through parliament, scrawling graffiti on its walls, defacing portraits of pro-Beijing lawmakers, and tearing up the city’s constitution.

When Lam emerged in the early hours of Tuesday morning — once police had taken back control of the building — she sent a stern message to the radicals, condemning “the extreme use of violence” and urging respect for the rule of law.

Critics say the blame for the unrest lies with Lam, who has refused to make any major concessions to the huge protests.

“I think the chief executive and her governing team should ask themselves: what has led to this degree of violence?” Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s chief secretary during the handover, said on Tuesday.

“It is a combination of several years of injustice ... (and) a government that listens only to the pro-Beijing party and ignores the rest of Hong Kong people,” she told reporters.

The immediate spark for the current protests was a push by Lam to fast track a bill allowing extraditions to mainland China — a proposal she has since postponed, but not permanently abandoned.

But the rallies also reflected years of anger over how the city is run by its pro-Beijing administrators.

When she took office, Lam was already loathed by the city’s pro-democracy camp because she had been deputy to her deeply unpopular predecessor, CY Leung, during the failed 2014 Umbrella Movement protests calling for universal suffrage.

Born into a low-income family, Lam excelled both at her Catholic school and university.

She began her career in the colonial civil service and rose through the ranks in the post-handover period, earning herself a reputation for being a fighter and committed Beijing loyalist.

During the 2014 pro-democracy protests she was often the face of the government, debating student leaders and insisting their demands to directly elect the city’s leader would not be met.

When she won the top job three years later, she said she hoped to leave behind the political rancour of that period.

The rhetoric of Hong Kong’s political scene is often unforgiving, and Lam has long faced unflattering — and often misogynistic — insults.

One of her nicknames — a pun on her family name — was “lai-ma” or wet nurse, a jibe over what her opponents said was a fawning loyalty towards her former boss Leung. Throughout her time in the public eye, Lam has been at pains to communicate a steely resolve and confidence in her ability to steer Hong Kong. “If mainstream opinion makes me no longer able to continue the job as chief executive, I’ll resign,” she declared at an election debate.

Two years on, Lam’s reputation is in tatters and her approval ratings at a record low, even after she agreed to suspend the controversial extradition bill and issued an apology for misjudging the public mood.

But few expect Lam to step down — her departure would be a huge loss of face to China.