China’s president, Xi Jinping, has made his first trip outside the mainland since the Covid pandemic began, landing in Hong Kong and telling crowds the region had “risen from the ashes” after years of upheaval.
The leader, his wife, Peng Liyuan, and delegates, arrived by high-speed train at West Kowloon station before his scheduled attendance at the inauguration of the city’s new chief executive, and the 25th anniversary of the British return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.
In a speech, he said Hong Kong had been “reborn of fire” and the policy of “one country, two systems” had been a success.
“My heart and that of the central government have been with our compatriots in Hong Kong,” he said, according to a translation by the South China Morning Post. “In the past few years, Hong Kong has gone through various severe challenges one after another, and has defeated them.
“After the wind and rain, Hong Kong has risen from the ashes, and showed strong vibrancy.”
Authorities are taking no chances, ensuring the highly choreographed visit is filled with pomp and pageantry – and no sign of dissent. Xi’s red carpet arrival included a brass band, traditional “lion” dances, and vetted crowds chanting and waving flags. He was met by the outgoing chief executive, Carrie Lam, and China’s liaison chief, Luo Huining, before greeting other officials.
Before Xi arrived, huge barriers went up around the convention centre, establishing a tight, two-level secure zone with no civilian access. On Wednesday hundreds of Hong Kong’s distinctive red taxis, adorned with red Chinese flags and red celebratory banners, parked in the shape of the number “25” in the city’s Central district. Across the harbour in Kowloon, hundreds of Chinese and Hong Kong flags fluttered from the balcony railings of two housing estates, each dozens of storeys high.
On 1 July 1997, the territory was promised 50 years of self-government and freedoms of assembly, speech and press that are not allowed on the Communist-ruled Chinese mainland. As the city of 7.4 million people marks a quarter of a century under Beijing’s rule, those promises have all but evaporated.
Under a plan to ensure the anniversary day goes without a hitch, nearby metro stations have been closed and buses rerouted, while the harbour and other areas are subject to temporary restricted flying zones.
Opportunity for criticism of Xi, or the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government, will be stifled. One of Hong Kong’s few remaining pro-democracy groups said it would not stage a protest after several members were summoned by police.
Local and foreign outlets have been denied access to Friday’s event by authorities, citing the pandemic. On Tuesday some approved outlets said individual journalists had since been denied access, too late to have a replacement obtain the requisite several days of negative tests.
Hong Kong’s media have been hobbled since the introduction of the national security law in 2020. Papers and websites have been forced to close, while editors and executives have been arrested.
It is one way Beijing has in recent years expanded its influence and control. Protest is in effect outlawed after pro-democracy rallies that were crushed by police. Schools must now provide lessons on patriotism and national security, and some new textbooks deny Hong Kong was ever a British colony.
Electoral changes have ensured that no opposition lawmakers are in the city’s legislature, only those deemed by Beijing to be “patriots”.
Reacting to the event in Hong Kong, Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, said in a statement on Thursday that her country “remains deeply concerned by the continuing erosion of Hong Kong’s rights, freedoms and autonomy.
“We urge the Chinese government and Hong Kong authorities to uphold and protect those elements which have been so crucial to Hong Kong’s success, including its high degree of autonomy, the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the basic law and the Sino-British declaration, to which Beijing committed,” she said.
Hong Kong’s ‘new chapter’
John Lee, the former security head who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, will be inaugurated as the next chief executive of the territory on Friday.
Lee will replace Lam, the maligned face of the crackdown that began in earnest in 2019. Asked by Bloomberg this month if she wanted to apologise for anything from her term, she said no, that she was only sorry for the sacrifices made by her family “to support my mission”.
Lee has pledged to unite the city for “a new chapter”, while also promising an even more aggressive approach to counter “fearmongering and badmouthing” by critics.
The prominent Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong, who was jailed by Chinese authorities for three years and covered the handover, says Lee has shown his loyalty to Beijing and will be “at most a figurehead implementing Beijing’s idea”.
“The lifelong career of John Lee is security and he has no experience in other sectors,” Ching says.
Xi has said he expects Lee and his new government to “bring refreshing changes to the governance of Hong Kong”.
On Wednesday Xinhua, the official state news agency of the Chinese Communist party, said Hong Kong’s development had “come along in leaps and bounds” under one country, two systems, with much-needed stability brought by the national security law. In the meantime, record numbers of people are leaving the city for good.
In normal times, the anniversary would include familiar faces from the handover, such as Martin Lee. Nicknamed the “father of democracy”, Lee was instrumental in the Sino-British joint declaration and a prominent face of the pro-democracy movement for decades.
As Prince Charles left Hong Kong, he diarised his fears: “Thus we left Hong Kong to her fate, and the hope that Martin Lee, leader of the Democrats, would not be arrested.”
Lee, 82, was arrested last year and given a 12-month suspended sentence for organising and participating in an unauthorised assembly – one of the 2019 pro-democracy rallies.
Dozens of his fellow activists and politicians have also been arrested or jailed. Those not incarcerated, like Lee, rarely speak publicly and spend their days visiting and caring for friends and colleagues in prison.
Under the national security law introduced in 2020, the risk of crossing vaguely defined red lines is too great and at least two people, including the widely respected legislator Claudia Mo, were denied bail after their WhatsApp conversations with foreign journalists were submitted as evidence.
For many former Hongkongers, the anniversary will be a painful reminder of the promise the city once had, and its swift collapse.
Valerie was 17 when Hong Kong was handed back. On that day in 1997 she watched the ceremony on TV, but “without any happiness”. “In the last scenes of [former British governor Chris] Patten’s family getting on the ship, I couldn’t stop my tears,” she told the Guardian from her new home overseas.
“I didn’t understand politics much in those days but I couldn’t believe Hong Kong would get better. Now I’m afraid the Hong Kong culture will eventually fade away.”