On Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong for a two-day visit, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, a former British colony, to communist China. The city ramped up its security measures ahead of his visit, while guests, including lawmakers and diplomats, were put into quarantine. This is the Chinese president’s first trip outside the country in over two years, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ceremony will mark Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, which will also act as an inauguration ceremony for the new government led by incoming leader John Lee. On Thursday, Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan arrived at Hong Kong’s West Kowloon train station, to crowds of children and adults waving flags of Hong Kong and China, and chanting “welcome” in Mandarin, followed by a traditional lion dance.
They were also welcomed by incumbent city leader Carrie Lam, incoming leader John Lee, and Leung Chun-Ying, the former chief executive of the city, among other leaders.
Upon his arrival, the Chinese president made a short speech at the station. “I’m very happy to be in Hong Kong. It’s been five years since I last visited, and in the past five years I’ve been paying attention to and thinking about Hong Kong,” he said. “Hong Kong has withstood severe tests, again and again, overcoming challenges one by one… After the wind and rain, Hong Kong has risen from the ashes,” he added. Hong Kong and Macao are considered special administrative regions that are governed separately from the rest of mainland China.
Some analysts also see this visit as a “victory lap” after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020, following the large-scale, violent protests the previous year, triggered by the controversial extradition bill. Furthermore, on Friday, pro-Beijing politician John Lee is set to begin his five-year term as Hong Kong’s chief executive, following the elections held in May, where Lee was the only candidate.
During his speech, the Chinese president also spoke about adhering to the “one country, two systems” framework, which would ensure Hong Kong’s “bright future and will make new and bigger contributions to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”. According to sources, after his speech, President Jinping was expected to visit the Hong Kong Science Park, before meeting pro-Beijing politicians and tycoons, which would be followed by a closed-door banquet that is to be hosted by the outgoing Hong Kong chief executive Lam.
The details of President Xi’s trip have been more or less under wraps. Reportedly, the Chinese leader will spend the night in the neighbouring city of Shenzhen on the Chinese mainland, and return to Hong Kong on Friday morning, to attend the events scheduled for July 1. Additionally, the Hong Kong police have ramped up security and created designated security zones, as well as a “no-fly zone” over the central Victoria Harbour for Friday’s celebrations.
Meanwhile, more than ten journalists from local and international media organisations have been barred from the event as their applications had been rejected earlier this week on “security grounds”. The government indicated that “striking a balance between the need of media work and security requirements” is essential.
Reportedly, Lui Kam-ho, a senior police official, also warned against any acts of violence and public disorder. Hong Kong has also deployed at least 30,000 police personnel to ensure security for the celebrations, as five years ago, during Xi’s last visit, tens of thousands of protesters marched the streets. No protests are expected this year. Members of the pro-democracy group – the League of Social Democrats – have also indicated that they have scrapped the plans for a demonstration after the national security officers’ warning amid the president’s visit.
Notably, the July 1 handover anniversary is traditionally marked by peaceful rallies, with at least tens of thousands of people taking to the streets. However, mass gatherings in the city have nearly disappeared due to coronavirus restrictions and security crackdowns by Beijing, which were aimed at eliminating any public opposition to Chinese rule over the city.
This visit is also the Chinese president’s first since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Beijing had announced its “zero-COVID” policy to combat the outbreak. His last overseas trip was to Myanmar, in January 2020. As a precautionary measure, earlier this week, thousands of guests, including top officials and diplomats, had also checked in to quarantine hotels, and have been taking daily nucleic acid tests.
During his last visit, in 2017, Xi Jinping delivered a warning to Hong Kong that dissent and challenges to China’s rule were “absolutely impermissible”. However, following his departure, thousands participated in the annual pro-democracy rally, while many carried banners calling for the fall of the Chinese Communist Party.
This visit by the Chinese president is also after the new security law imposed in 2020, which criminalises secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces, and terrorist activities. Since the introduction of this law, it has become easier to prosecute protesters. Reports also suggest that this law was imposed in response to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Notably, hundreds of protesters, activists and former opposition lawmakers have been arrested since the law came into effect. This legislation has virtually ended street protests, purged the opposition parties, and reportedly, shut down the city’s biggest pro-democracy media outlets.