Hong Kong may be allowed to keep its unique freedoms beyond their 2047 expiry date, its leader said Thursday, but only if inhabitants remain loyal to Beijing's vision of how the city should be run.
Chief executive Carrie Lam, a pro-Beijing appointee, made the comments during a fiery session in the city's legislature, where she was frequently interrupted by opposition lawmakers -- many of whom were ejected.
Hong Kong has been battered by seven months of pro-democracy protests, which Lam and Beijing have taken a hard line against.
The protests are fuelled by fears that the city is losing freedoms under an increasingly authoritarian Beijing.
Under a "one country, two systems" deal agreed ahead of the city's 1997 handover, authoritarian China has allowed Hong Kong to keep key liberties and its capitalist system for fifty years.
But protesters say Beijing is already reneging on that promise, while uncertainty swirls around what might happen when the deadline expires.
On Thursday Lam said the city's continued freedoms were contingent on the city not challenging Beijing.
"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 during Thursday's appearance in the legislature.
She then called on the city's youth not to damage the principle because of "temporary misunderstandings".
"Otherwise, what they are worried about will be brought about by themselves," she added.
- Watchdog report delayed -
Hong Kong's protests were initially sparked by a now-abandoned attempt to allow extraditions to the mainland.
But they have since morphed into a popular revolt against Beijing's rule with huge marches and frequent clashes over the last seven months.
The ferocity and frequency of the protests have died down in recent weeks, but there are still rallies and occasional clashes with police.
The unrest has also helped tipped Hong Kong into a recession.
Among key protester demands are an independent investigation into the police, amnesty for more than 6,500 people arrested, and fully free elections.
Lam, backed by Beijing, has rejected those demands.
On Thursday she doubled down on defending the city's police force.
"I would not accept anyone accusing the police of brutality," she said.
Later in the day, the city's police watchdog said it would delay the imminent publication of an interim report on the protests because it was facing a legal challenge by pro-democracy supporters.
Beijing has thrown its full support behind Lam, who currently boasts record-low approval ratings.
Security officials had to be called in multiple times on Thursday to force out pro-democracy lawmakers who shouted slogans and held placards, including one that portrayed Lam as a vampire with bat wings.
Lam even fielded tough questions from pro-Beijing lawmakers, one of whom asked if she was willing to take a pay cut.
The last time Lam 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.