BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Premier Li Keqiang on Sunday dismissed worries that Beijing would tighten controls over Hong Kong, saying that the country's leaders would not "easily" change the policy toward the former British colony.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula that gives it a separate legal system and greater freedoms than the Communist Party-ruled mainland - and the promise of universal suffrage.
Beijing says it will allow a free vote for Hong Kong leaders in 2017, but only between pre-screened candidates. Pro-democracy protests last year shut down parts of the city for two and a half months.
Li said the government was committed to the consistent and full implementation of the "one-country, two systems" policy.
"Some people worry whether the central government will tighten these policies toward Hong Kong. There is no need," Li said at a briefing after the close of an annual meeting of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress.
"The Basic Law stipulates that the systems of the special administrative region, and one-country, two systems policy represent the will of the country and the desire of the people. They cannot be changed easily," Li said.
China's third-ranked leader Zhang Dejiang said in early March that a patriotic curriculum for Hong Kong youth could be needed after "illegal" street protests by student-led pro-democracy activists.
The comments echoed remarks last month by the head of China's Hong Kong Liaison Office, who said Beijing aimed to tighten control of the global financial hub.
The duration and intensity of last year's democracy protests surprised government officials in Hong Kong and China.
Anger at Beijing's unwillingness to negotiate over the election of the next chief executive has upset residents, prompting a new wave of more radical protests against traders and mainland visitors, whom Hong Kong residents have long accused of flooding shopping malls and emptying store shelves.
Since the beginning of the year, activists have staged weekend protests at malls, urging mainlanders to return home and advocating greater Hong Kong nationalism and even independence.
(Reporting by Jason Subler, Writing by Michael Martina; Editing by Kim Coghill)