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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam appears on a TV screen during a question-and-answer session at the Legislative Council, in Hong Kong, on Jan. 16, 2020.Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is holding out hope that a great uncertainty clouding the city’s future can be lifted, suggesting the city’s unique status in China can be maintained beyond the promised 50-year period after its handover to Beijing.

As long as the people of Hong Kong abide by the principles governing the financial centre as a part of China, “then there’s sufficient reason for us to believe that ‘one country, two systems’ will see steady and sustainable development in the future, and it will not change after 2047,” Ms. Lam said Thursday in her first remarks of the year to the city’s Legislative Council.

Under “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong has enjoyed some of the liberties of Western democracies, including freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, an uncensored internet and limited voting rights.

But Ms. Lam issued a warning about threats to the city’s distinctness, suggesting it could be undermined by the violent protests that have plagued the city for almost seven months, motivated in part by grievances against China.

“I also want to tell Hong Kong young people: don’t break this important principle and policy because of some misunderstanding,” she said. “Otherwise the things they fear are happening today will come true in the future, and they themselves will be the ones to blame.”

Ms. Lam spoke in response to questions from Ann Chiang, a pro-establishment lawmaker, who asked about preserving the city’s lifestyle and system. “How can you assure young people that after 2047 there will still be ‘one country, two systems’ implemented in Hong Kong?”

The question has hung heavy over the city as 2047 grows less distant. Hong Kong’s constitutional document, the Basic Law, promises that China’s “socialist system and policies shall not be practised” in the city “and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years,” beginning in 1997 – the year of the city’s handover to China from Britain. It makes no guarantees beyond that date, which has led to fears that China will, after 2047, begin to dismantle Hong Kong’s special status.

Fear of losing civic freedoms to Beijing’s authoritarian rule lie at the roots of a series of protest movements over the past decade. For people born after 1997, the 50-year pledge puts significant uncertainty over their personal futures. Polling shows that while support for independence in Hong Kong has risen, it remains low overall, while support for the current protest movement remains relatively high.

Any pledge to maintain Hong Kong’s special status past 2047 would require the assent of Beijing, and Ms. Lam offered no evidence of such support for her comments. Still, her position is backed by Beijing, and she has regularly travelled to China to meet with the top leadership there.

Describing a longer future for “one country, two systems” is “news to all of us,” said Anson Chan, a former lawmaker who also served as chief secretary of Hong Kong, the city’s second-most powerful administrative position.

”Of course, everybody wishes to see ‘one country, two systems’ continue beyond 2047, because in my view that’s the best way of guaranteeing Hong Kong’s long-term stability and prosperity,” Ms. Chan said. But she treated Ms. Lam’s remarks with skepticism, saying she would like to see assurances from China.

“It’s no good just saying this. We want to see actual proof. And what we’re seeing in front of us at the moment doesn’t give us any confidence.”

Those pushing for greater democratic freedoms in Hong Kong had long hoped that political change in China would deliver enough freedoms to the mainland by 2047 that the date would pass with little notice.

Now, however, pro-democracy advocates say their primary concern is the way Chinese influence is undermining Hong Kong’s freedoms and judiciary.

“Even today, the system is broken. Even today, ‘one country, two systems’ is not being executed as promised,” said Avery Ng, a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong. “So saying that extending ‘one country, two systems’ beyond 50 years only means that we are extending a broken system – extending the current undemocratic regime for years to come.”

There is little reason to think Ms. Lam’s remarks will ease the fury that has sustained the protests, he said.

“It sort of sounds like Carrie Lam is sidestepping the problem – to frame it in such a way that it is to do with the future. But what we are striving for is the present,” Mr. Ng said. Without political reforms or an independent inquiry into police conduct, “these clashes and arguments will continue, and society will remain divided for years to come.”

Ms. Lam’s approval ratings have plunged to about 20 per cent, and her remarks Thursday were frequently interrupted by yelling from other lawmakers, one of whom was forcibly removed while holding an image of Ms. Lam’s face adorned with red devil horns. Another called her “the laughingstock of the world.”

Ms. Lam, however, has defended the police, who have been accused of treating protesters harshly – both on the streets and in detention centres. She said the problem is “continuous smearing and vilifying of the Hong Kong police force," calling it an attempt to undermine their ability to maintain order.

Her primary concern, she said Thursday, is guiding Hong Kong to “relaunch itself” in 2020. Two days ago, her administration unveiled a $1.7-billion package of measures to support the elderly, the poor, the unemployed and the underemployed.

“Poverty and housing are still the most critical livelihood issues that we are facing, and they are part of the roots of the social grievance,” she said.

But she acknowledged that little is likely to change in the short term.

“To restore trust and break down the deadlock, I am afraid, will take a lot of time.”

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