By Kari Lindberg and Rebecca Choong Wilkins
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong for its 25th anniversary of Chinese rule, his first trip to the city since overseeing twin crackdowns on political dissent and COVID-19 that risked the territory’s future as an international commercial centre.
Xi pulled into West Kowloon Station on Thursday afternoon with his wife, Peng Liyuan, after taking the high-speed rail link from mainland China, according to the South China Morning Post. China hasn’t released Xi’s itinerary, but he is expected to stay overnight in the neighbouring tech hub of Shenzhen, as Hong Kong experiences its worst COVID surge since April - some 2000 cases were recorded on Wednesday.
A closed-door banquet hosted by outgoing leader Carrie Lam that Xi was expected to attend on Thursday evening was cancelled due to virus concerns, the Sing Tao newspaper reported. The Chinese leader will return to the former British colony on July 1 to swear in her successor as Hong Kong chief executive, John Lee, a former police official and security minister.
The trip marks Xi’s first outside mainland China in almost 900 days, after his COVID-zero policy restricted his travel to domestic engagements, and led Hong Kong to close its own borders. It’s the first time during the pandemic that Xi has set foot in a city openly operating with thousands of COVID cases – evidence of Xi’s determination to signal China’s firm control of the once freewheeling territory.
“Hong Kong has withstood severe tests again and again, overcoming challenges one by one,” Xi said. “After the wind and rain, Hong Kong has risen from the ashes.”
The event marks the halfway point of China’s 50-year promise to maintain Hong Kong’s liberal institutions and capitalist markets until at least 2047 under a framework called “one country, two systems”. The UK has accused China of violating their handover agreement, a claim backed up by the US, which has imposed sanctions on Lam, Lee and senior Chinese officials for their roles in cracking down on the local opposition.
“It means a lot symbolically that the president of China is coming to Hong Kong to celebrate the 25th anniversary,” Tommy Wu, lead China economist at Oxford Economics. “It’s Hong Kong and China telling the rest of the world that Hong Kong is a major international, financial and business centre in Asia, with the backing of the Chinese Communist Party.”
When Xi last visited Hong Kong in 2017 he delivered a tough message, warning the city that challenges to China’s rule were “absolutely impermissible”. After his departure, thousands joined an annual pro-democracy march, with some attendees carrying banners calling for the downfall of the Communist Party.
This year, the atmosphere is very different. Xi’s government has since imposed a national security law on Hong Kong that criminalises subversion, secession, colluding with foreign forces and terrorist activities. That sweeping legislation has ended street protests, purged the political opposition and closed the city’s biggest pro-democracy media outlets.
This week Hong Kong authorities, citing security reasons, barred more than 16 journalists from covering Xi’s visit. The journalists represent at least seven media outlets, including international news agencies Reuters and Agence France-Presse and several others from Hong Kong, the association said.
Despite receiving initial approvals that included instructions for checking into the quarantine hotel, some journalists received rejection notices while on the way or after arriving in the city.
The League of Social Democrats, one of the city’s last protest groups, said in a Facebook post that after meeting with national security police it had decided against holding a July 1 demonstration.
Lee and other government officials were required to enter hotel quarantine ahead of Xi’s arrival, as were some 3000 other people involved in the celebrations, the Post reported on Thursday. Drones have been banned across the city and aircraft prohibited from flying over Victoria Harbour. Roads, footbridges, and flyovers that Xi and his motorcade pass will be temporarily closed.
The Chinese leader is expected to give a speech on Friday trumpeting Hong Kong’s return to stability, after Beijing made unprecedented interventions in its legal and electoral systems, with the latter ensuring only Communist Party loyalists can rule. Xi’s government has also required the one-time aviation hub to stay broadly in step with China’s cautious approach to COVID.
Hong Kong will be paying close attention to Xi’s speech for signs of how the city can loosen its border policies while balancing Beijing’s interests.
“On the one hand, Beijing wants to incorporate Hong Kong into the Greater Bay Area development plan,” said Vivan Zhan, an associate professor specialising in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, referring to the southern area of China. “But at the same time, it needs to allow Hong Kong to maintain a certain degree of autonomy to strengthen its credibility for an international audience.”
“That’s a challenging task given what’s happened in the past few years and the rising international concern on rule of law, judicial independence and policymaking,” she added.