HONG KONG – Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Thursday that the “one country, two systems” framework under which the city enjoys freedoms unknown in China could continue after the 2047 deadline if loyalty to Beijing is upheld.
Lam’s comments at the Legislative Council appeared to be an appeal to those who see Beijing as tightening its control over the semi-autonomous territory’s civic, economic and political life.
Hong Kong has been racked by often violent anti-government protests since June, although they have diminished considerably in scale following a landslide win by opposition candidates in races for district councilors late last year.
Hong Kong was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with a promise that it would maintain its own capitalist economy and Western-style institutions for 50 years.
Once the 50-year time period expires, China is under no obligation to continue permitting Hong Kong to keep separate freedoms —including a free media and the right to protest — that make the city distinct from the mainland.
Protesters and pro-democracy lawmakers have frequently accused China of undermining the promises the country’s leaders made to Britain before the handover in 1997 and envision a bleak future beyond 2047, in which Hong Kong is treated like any other Chinese city.
Some pro-establishment lawmakers have argued that violent protests in favor of greater democracy are likely to make Beijing feel threatened and less likely to continue guaranteeing Hong Kong’s separate freedoms after 2047.
“Only if we insist on implementing the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and practice it continuously and fully … then I think there will be enough grounds for ‘one country, two systems’ to move ahead smoothly and there would be no change after 2047,” Lam said. “We have to uphold the principle of ‘one country.’ Only by doing this can ‘one country, two systems’ be moving forward smoothly.”
Lam’s comments echo language from China’s Communist Party leaders, who say Hong Kong’s unique system is predicated on respect for Chinese sovereignty over the territory. Beijing routinely accuses political opponents in Hong Kong of seeking to split the territory from the mainland with the backing of foreign forces.
Luo Huining, the new director of China’s Liaison Office in the city, said Wednesday that Hong Kong’s people should place their hope in “one country, two systems.”
If the system is implemented well, “Hong Kong will win development opportunities and earn room for growth,” he said. If it isn’t, “there will be nonstop conflicts and chaos.”
The pro-democracy protests were sparked by proposed legislation that could have seen suspects extradited to face unfair trials and possible torture in China. While the legislation was eventually scrapped, the movement grew to adopt new demands, including calls for universal suffrage and an independent investigation into police conduct.
While Lam has rejected those points, she said Thursday she hoped next month to announce the formation of a committee to look into the root causes of the unrest. Academics, experts and social leaders have been recruited to the Independent Review Committee, although some are reportedly reluctant to join out of fear of personal attacks or online harassment by opponents leaking personal information.
Along with political concerns, the skyrocketing cost of housing and increased economic competition from mainland China are believed to have fueled the protests.
During the contentious session, Lam repeatedly defended police action as angry lawmakers demanded to know why her government isn’t responding to public demand for an independent investigation into alleged police brutality.
She said that police were merely performing their duty to maintain public order and had deployed “minimal force.” The government says complaints against police are being handled by the force’s own investigative division.
At one point, a lawmaker asked Lam, a practicing Catholic, whether she was afraid of going to hell. When she dodged the question in her reply, he asked her “When are you going to die?”
Multiple opposition lawmakers were ejected from the legislature Thursday after they heckled Lam.
Security officials had to be called in multiple times to force out pro-democracy lawmakers who shouted slogans and held placards, including one that portrayed her as a vampire with bat wings.
The last time she appeared in the legislature in October, the heckling was so sustained that she abandoned a state-of-the-union-style address and delivered it by video instead.
On Thursday, she was able to make both her opening speech and answer questions but was frequently interrupted.
Among the slogans shouted by lawmakers was “Five demands, not one less” — a chant used during the pro-democracy street protests.