Hong Kong's freedoms can continue past 2047 and be guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" principle Beijing uses to govern the territory, if people fully respect it, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said yesterday, in what is believed to be the first such detailed statement on this topic.
She made the point that as long as the principle is fully understood and implemented, especially by the younger generation, there is "sufficient ground" for people to believe that Hong Kong can continue to have a high degree of autonomy beyond 2047, as provided for under the principle.
Under the "one country, two systems" principle, Beijing promises that Hong Kong will retain its free market way of life and its existing legal, political and financial systems for 50 years from when the British handed the city back to China in 1997. This principle is enshrined under Article 5 of the Basic Law - the city's mini Constitution - and China is under no obligation to uphold it once it expires.
"As long as we uphold, fully understand and implement the 'one country, two systems' principle, there are adequate reasons to believe the arrangement will move ahead smoothly and there would be no change after 2047," Mrs Lam told lawmakers in her first question-and-answer session in the Legislative Council.
Her response followed remarks by lawmaker Ann Chiang, from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, who said young people were worried the Basic Law would protect the existing system and way of life only until 2047.
Mrs Lam said: "I want to tell the young people, who were mostly born after the handover, to treasure 'one country, two systems'... instead of bringing damage to this important system due to misunderstanding.
"Otherwise, they will be creating the situation that they are in fact worried about today."
She added that if everyone treasured the principle, then no one should "worry" about it extending beyond 2047.
Hong Kong has been gripped by more than seven months of pro-tests, sparked by Mrs Lam's attempt to introduce an extradition law which has now been scrapped. Many Hong Kongers were concerned that suspects could be sent to China for unfair trials with no human rights protection, despite the government's assurances about safeguards in place.
To help heal the rifts in society, Mrs Lam said yesterday that she hoped to announce next month the setting up of an Independent Review Committee, made up of social leaders and academics, to look into the causes of the unrest.
Moves to form the committee have hit a snag as people are reluctant to join, due to fears of personal attacks and doxxing.
Yesterday's legislative session was again marred by the shouting of slogans and expulsions of lawmakers, reminiscent of the chaos last November when Mrs Lam tried to deliver her policy address.
On multiple occasions, security officials dragged lawmakers from the chamber because they were shouting and carrying demeaning placards, including one that portrayed Mrs Lam as a vampire.
In total, 13 lawmakers, many from the pan-democracy camp and a pro-Beijing unionist, were expelled during the question-and-answer session, mostly for shouting from their seats.