Hong Kong's leader urged an immediate end to independence debates in the Chinese-ruled global financial hub on Tuesday, 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," Lam said.
"It is not in the interests of Hong Kong's development and must stop," she said.
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 exist 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 can't be crossed, saying the city is an inalienable part of China.
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.
Lam said she believed university management would be able to handle the issue without government action.
Asked about Lam's warnings, Chris Patten, Britain's last governor of Hong Kong, urged greater efforts to engage Hong Kong's restive young people even though he felt they should "back off" 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, by locking students up," said Patten.
"These (students) aren't people to be frightened of. They are the future. And you've got to persuade them why they're wrong," he said. "But of course Mrs Lam is entirely correct to say that what this does is .... provokes the worst sort of reactions from the Beijing press and the Beijing authorities," said Patten, who is now chancellor of Oxford University.
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