HONG KONG • Hong Kong's leader urged an immediate end to independence debates in the Chinese-ruled global financial hub yesterday, warning that the issue was harming the city's relationship with Beijing's Communist Party leaders.
Insisting that the government did not want to intervene on university campuses against those who have been flying independence banners, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the campaign was "organised and systematic" rather than simply an issue of freedom of speech.
"This has already deviated from the so-called 'why aren't we able to talk about this?' point of view. It is clearly attacking 'one country, two systems'... and destroying the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong," she said.
"It is not in the interests of Hong Kong's development and must stop," she added.
Mrs Lam said the calls "violated" the Basic Law, the constitutional document that secured Hong Kong's broad freedoms of speech and assembly after Britain handed its former colony back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" banner.
While the Basic Law enshrines far broader civil and commercial freedoms than what exists in mainland China, some legal experts warn that a sustained independence campaign could break laws against sedition.
Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, have warned that independence discussions are a red line that cannot be crossed, saying the city is an inalienable part of China.
NOT ABOUT FREEDOM OF SPEECH
This has already deviated from the so-called 'why aren't we able to talk about this?' point of view. It is clearly attacking 'one country, two systems'... and destroying the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong.
HK CHIEF EXECUTIVE CARRIE LAM, on the independence campaign in universities.
Independence debates have moved into the mainstream after several years on the political fringes as students and other groups test Hong Kong's freedoms.
Some have placed banners on "democracy walls" on campuses in recent days, sparking anger and counter-campaigns from Hong Kong-based mainland students.
The widening controversy sparked criticism from Chinese state media, as well as a rare joint statement from the heads of Hong Kong universities condemning the recent "abuses" of freedom of expression.
They declared that the universities did not support Hong Kong independence.
Mrs Lam said she believed university managements would be able to handle the issue without government action.
Asked about Mrs Lam's warnings, Mr Chris Patten, Britain's last governor of Hong Kong, urged greater efforts to engage the city's restive young people even though he felt they should "back off" on the independence issue.
"It's unwise to think that you can simply shut it down by, and I'm sure Carrie Lam wouldn't suggest this, locking students up," said Mr Patten. "These (students) aren't people to be frightened of. They are the future. And you have got to persuade them why they are wrong," he added.
"But of course Mrs Lam is entirely correct to say that what this does is... provoke the worst sort of reactions from the Beijing press and the Beijing authorities," said Mr Patten, who is now chancellor of Oxford University.