HONG KONG — Carrie Lam, the embattled chief executive of Hong Kong, is a workaholic who sleeps three to five hours a night. She assiduously reads letters from constituents. Within the Hong Kong civil service, she is labeled a “houdadak,” or “good fighter,” because she practically never backs down in a bureaucratic battle.
The question is whether Mrs. Lam will back down, or dig in further, in the biggest political fight of her career — one that could determine how long she stays in office.
Mrs. Lam is trying to push an extradition bill through the Hong Kong Legislative Council that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China, Taiwan and elsewhere for prosecution.
But business executives, seeing this week’s violent street protests against the bill and fearful they might someday be extradited themselves to uncertain fates in China’s opaque judicial system, are becoming increasingly critical of the plan. This has prompted some of Mrs. Lam’s senior advisers to recommend postponing legislative approval.
She put the bill forward in February in response to pleas from the parents of a young woman who was allegedly murdered by her boyfriend while the pair visited Taiwan. The boyfriend is in Hong Kong, which does not have an extradition agreement with Taiwan.
For all her stated intentions, Mrs. Lam’s plan faces a serious difficulty: Taiwan has said it would not seek his extradition under the proposed arrangement. Many in Hong Kong worry that if the bill is passed, mainland Chinese officials might use it to demand the extradition, for trial on the mainland, of citizens and visitors alike who displease the Communist Party.
As many as a million protesters took to the streets last Sunday. Demonstrations on Wednesday turned into street clashes with the police.
People who know Mrs. Lam describe her as a relentlessly driven civil servant who gets results. After a plan to develop a museum district on West Kowloon peninsula stalled, Mrs. Lam took charge. Now it is opening in stages.
“Carrie is very, very bright, extremely bright, and very, very decisive, stern — she makes up her mind to do something and does it,” said Allan Zeman, a Hong Kong business leader who helped on the museum project and was one of Mrs. Lam’s advisers when she campaigned two years ago to be appointed chief executive.
“She is very demanding of her staff, expects perfection,” he added, using the term “workaholic” repeatedly to describe her.
Mrs. Lam has spoken publicly of how, as a girl attending a strict Catholic girls’ school run by nuns in Hong Kong, she became so accustomed to being the top student in her class that she was once reduced to tears when she came in fourth. She went on to study at the elite Hong Kong University, then embarked on a 39-year career in government, serving in 21 different posts.
Mrs. Lam, 62, prefers the courtesy title “Mrs.,” not “Ms.” Her husband is a retired Hong Kong mathematician who lives in Britain, as does one of their two sons; the other son works in mainland China.
One of Mrs. Lam’s strengths in bureaucratic battles over the years has been her pointed reminders to colleagues that if she did not get her way, she would happily retire and live in Britain with her husband. In an interview with local television on Wednesday, she became teary-eyed while talking about the personal sacrifices she had made to serve as chief executive.
But she also seemed determined not to give in to protesters. She compared the government’s response to young protesters to her own experience raising two sons.
If a mother gives in to a child’s demands, she said, then years later, “He will ask me, ‘Mom, why didn’t you remind me back then?’ ”
The comment antagonized some in Hong Kong. It reminded them of another of her nicknames, “the babysitter,” which she acquired for cleaning up political messes created by men in top jobs.
Over the last few years, Mrs. Lam has evolved toward more pro-Beijing positions as Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, has demanded ever greater obedience from Hong Kong.
When protesters from the so-called Umbrella Movement occupied downtown Hong Kong in 2014 to demand free elections, Mrs. Lam played a conciliatory role, even as the chief executive at the time, Leung Chun-ying, took a much harder line. She spent many hours in meetings with protest organizers in an unsuccessful effort to reach a compromise.
But she was careful not to encourage expectations that she might pursue greater democracy after taking office.
In an interview two years ago, shortly before taking office as chief executive, Mrs. Lam acknowledged “a certain degree of truth” in the argument that Hong Kong’s inability to introduce broad democracy was making it more difficult to address complex social issues like housing, education and infrastructure.
But she added: “If we were to have universal suffrage tomorrow, would all these problems disappear? I don’t think so.”
She declined to be interviewed again this week.
One question is whether the extradition bill was Mrs. Lam’s idea, or if Beijing’s leaders urged her to propose it.
She has said the bill was her response to five letters she received from the parents of the murder victim in Taiwan. Chinese Communist Party leaders then strongly endorsed the idea.
Two people with a detailed knowledge of Hong Kong government policymaking, who insisted on anonymity because of the political sensitivities involved, said the legislation was Mrs. Lam’s idea. They said she had quickly pushed it forward in response to the letters, with very little consultation either within the Hong Kong government or with Beijing.
Anson Chan, who was Hong Kong’s second-highest official before her retirement in 2001, said that although she had initially wondered if Beijing was involved in the bill, she now finds it plausible that Mrs. Lam acted alone.
“She was never a team player, and ever since she took up this post, she has become ever more authoritarian,” said Mrs. Chan, who has become an advocate of democracy since her retirement.
Mrs. Lam has a track record of trying to help complete strangers. Throughout her career in the civil service, and even now as chief executive of a territory of seven million people, she has made the time to read personal petitions from the public.
An almost completely paralyzed young Hong Kong woman with a genetic illness wrote an appeal to Mrs. Lam in late 2017, asking for the territory’s public health service to pay for an extremely expensive new medicine for the rare medical problem. Mrs. Lam quickly had her staff approve payments for the drug.
Opposition to the extradition bill is so fierce in Hong Kong now that many protesters and pro-democracy lawmakers have called not only for Mrs. Lam to withdraw the legislation but also to resign. A resignation, however, would trigger a long and acrimonious legal process to select her successor — not something Beijing wants or needs in the middle of a trade war with the United States, and as the Chinese economy slows.
The question is how much more of a political price will Mrs. Lam be willing to pay in order to prevail on the extradition issue.
“Her credibility is now severely dented,” Mrs. Chan said. “If she insists on bulldozing this proposal through the Legislative Council, where pro-Beijing parties have a majority, she will find it increasingly difficult to govern Hong Kong in the next three years.”