HONG KONG - Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she has caused "unforgivable havoc" by igniting the political crisis engulfing the city and would quit if she had a choice, according to an audio recording of remarks she made last week to a group of business people.
At the closed-door meeting, Mrs Lam told the group that she now has "very limited" room to resolve the crisis because the unrest has become a national security and sovereignty issue for China amid rising tensions with the United States.
"If I have a choice," she said, speaking in English, "the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology."
Mrs Lam's dramatic and at times anguished remarks offer the clearest view yet into the thinking of the Chinese leadership as it navigates the unrest in Hong Kong, the biggest political crisis to grip the country since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Hong Kong has been convulsed by sometimes violent protests and mass demonstrations since June, in response to a proposed law by Mrs Lam's administration that would allow people suspected of crimes on the mainland to be extradited to face trial in Chinese courts.
The law has been shelved, but Mrs Lam has been unable to end the upheaval.
Protesters have expanded their demands to include complete withdrawal of the proposal, a concession her administration has so far refused. Large demonstrations paralysed Hong Kong again over the weekend.
Mrs Lam suggested that Beijing had not yet reached a turning point.
She said it had not imposed any deadline for ending the crisis ahead of National Day celebrations scheduled for Oct 1. And she said China had "absolutely no plan" to deploy People's Liberation Army troops on Hong Kong streets.
World leaders have been closely watching whether China will send in the military to quell the protests, as it did a generation ago in the bloody Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.
Mrs Lam noted, however, that she had few options once an issue had been elevated "to a national level", a reference to the leadership in Beijing, "to a sort of sovereignty and security level, let alone in the midst of this sort of unprecedented tension between the two big economies in the world".
In such a situation, she added, "the political room for the Chief Executive who, unfortunately, has to serve two masters by Constitution, that is the Central People's government and the people of Hong Kong, that political room for manoeuvring is very, very, very limited."
A 24-minute recording of her remarks was reviewed by Reuters and three people who attended the meeting confirmed that Mrs Lam had made the comments in a talk that lasted about half an hour.
Responding to Reuters, a spokesman for Mrs Lam said she attended two events last week that included business people and that both were effectively private.
"We are, therefore, not in a position to comment on what the Chief Executive has said at those events," the spokesman added.