How Hong Kong's leader is beholden to Beijing

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam once said she serves two masters: the people of her city, and the Beijing government.

Opponents say it’s clear where her loyalty lies after last year’s crackdown on democracy.

This is the story of how Lam evolved from a social activist to the contentious leader of a divided city.

Lam was born in British-ruled Hong Kong in 1957.

A devout Catholic, Lam planned to become a social worker while studying at the University of Hong Kong.

She was described by teachers and fellow students as gentle, altruistic and liberal.

In 2000, she fulfilled her university ambition and became the head of the Social Welfare Department.

She worked with the city’s poorest and this connection was at the core of her early political appeal.

In 1997, Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule, guaranteeing the city wide-ranging freedoms.

The early years were mostly calm, but there were signals of dissatisfaction with Beijing’s rule.

It escalated in 2014 when students took to the streets in the so-called Umbrella Movement to call for democratic reform.

By now, Lam had risen to the second-highest office in the territory: chief secretary.

She showed an early tough streak in her dealings with the protesters.

In 2017, Lam strode onto the global stage when a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists picked her as the city’s next leader.

At her swearing in, Xi Jinping laid down the line of China’s authority.

"Any attempt to endanger China's sovereignty and security ... is an act that crosses the red line."

A beaming Lam strolled to inspect a new bridge linking Hong Kong to mainland China, a symbol of integration.

She insisted to local media she wouldn’t blindly follow China’s orders.

But in the months that followed, she repeatedly stressed the importance of binding Hong Kong closer to the mainland.

It all came to a head in early 2019 when Lam tried to push through a law that would allow extraditions to the mainland.

By June, millions took to the streets as she refused to back down.

The scale and violence of protests took its toll as Lam become a personal target and a despised figure for many in her own city.

In September 2019, she withdrew the extradition bill,

only for China to hammer out a new national security law.

When the law was published at the end of June last year, its reach stunned the city.

But Lam stood firm with Beijing as it imposed the drastic changes, granting China more power than ever.

Today, the opposition movement has largely been extinguished.

Lam is widely condemned by foreign governments and has been sanctioned by the United States for her role in curtailing Hong Kong’s freedoms.

She says she can’t even open a bank account and has to store piles of cash in her home.

Long-time observers say she has become reclusive and almost unrecognizable since she came to power four years ago.

One Beijing official told Reuters the Chinese leadership sees few alternatives to Lam, for now, as chief executive.

Some believe she’s retained enough trust in China to serve a second term in 2022.