Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she had caused "unforgivable havoc" by igniting the political crisis engulfing the city and would quit if she had a choice, according to an audio recording obtained by Reuters news agency.
Lam told a closed-door meeting with businesspeople last week that she had "very limited" room to resolve the crisis because the unrest had 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."
In a press conference on Tuesday, Lam told reporters that she has never considered submitting her resignation to Beijing, adding that she was very disappointed that details of a private meeting were leaked.
"The choice of not resigning is my own choice," she said, acknowleding that "sometimes at private meetings, I shared personal thoughts."
In the earlier recording, 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 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 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 rocked the city again over the weekend.
Lam suggested that Beijing had not yet reached a turning point. She said Beijing had not imposed any deadline for ending the crisis in the run-up to National Day celebrations scheduled for October 1.
And she said China had "absolutely no plan" to deploy People's Liberation Army troops on Hong Kong streets.