Xi, who is making his first trip outside mainland China since the start of the pandemic, did not attend the outdoor ceremony but marked the occasion by declaring that Hong Kong had “entered a new phase where it has gone from chaos to control and from control to prosperity.”
The display of national pride comes as the city is struggling to maintain its position as an Asian cultural and financial powerhouse, in part because Beijing’s micromanagement of the city has undermined confidence in its future as an open and attractive society and business environment with rule of law.
After the inauguration of John Lee, the territory’s former top security official and new chief executive, Xi presented his vision of Hong Kong having been saved from the “humiliation of forced cession” to Britain, adding that “real democracy” came only after the territory returned to Chinese rule.
That version of events is starkly at odds with criticisms from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists and Western governments who accuse Xi of rolling back freedom of speech and democratic rights in the city by the imposition of sweeping national security legislation in 2020.
In his speech, Xi signaled that his approach was here to stay. The “one country, two systems” model created by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping during the handover negotiations is a system that “has no reason to change and must persevere for the long term,” he said.
The formulation, once seen as a promise to maintain Hong Kong’s political freedoms, has increasingly come to mean that defending “one country” comes first. Beijing has made clear that perceived threats to national security, such as calls for democracy and protests against Beijing’s encroachment, will not be tolerated.
Hong Kong politicians, Xi stressed, must be loyal to Beijing. No country would “allow forces or individuals that are not patriotic, or even betray their nation, to hold political power,” he said.
On arriving in the city by high-speed rail on Thursday, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong declared that Hong Kong had “risen from the ashes,” even as many of the younger generation in the former British colony expressed concern about their rapidly disappearing freedoms and dashed hopes of a more democratic future.
Xi promised to “listen and care for” young people and address their difficulties finding work. “We ardently hope that every Hong Kong youth will join the ranks of those building a beautiful Hong Kong,” he said.
After widespread participation in protests against Beijing’s growing control, many young Hong Kongers have fled overseas, either for fear of being charged with national security violations or simply because they see no future in a that city no longer resembles the place they grew up in.
In a video posted to Twitter, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Beijing was failing to comply with its commitments made during the handover. “It’s a state of affairs that threatens both the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers and the continued progress and prosperity of their home,” he said.
Strict security and coronavirus controls meant only select guests attended the ceremony. At least 10 journalists were barred from the event. Those who were allowed in had to undergo five days of PCR tests and two days of quarantine to enter the “closed loop.”
Strict coronavirus-prevention rules as part of Beijing’s “zero covid” policy have also been a source of uncertainty for the international business community. The government still requires seven days of hotel quarantine for arriving locals and nonresidents.
Nearly half of European companies are considering leaving Hong Kong this year, according to the local European Chamber of Commerce. The city’s unemployment rate from February to April hit a 12-month high of 5.4 percent. A survey conducted this year by the University of Hong Kong found that around 1 in 10 suffer from depression, citing job loss and the pandemic as causes.
On Thursday, Xi met with the city’s police force in a dedicated ceremony, a rarity for Chinese leaders visiting the city. Over the course of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2019, police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and sudden, often brutal, arrests of suspected protesters made the force a primary focus of local criticism. But Beijing has regularly indicated approval for the heavy-handed approach.
In a sign of the growing similarities between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese law enforcement, Friday also marked the official adoption of the goose-step march of the Chinese military as the parade-step of the city’s police.
“I think looking back that for a long time there was a misunderstanding that ‘one country, two systems’ was equal, but actually it’s not equal,” outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam said this week in an interview with Phoenix media, referring to Beijing’s position that the former part of the formulation takes precedence.
For a year after taking office, Lam added, she “had not learned the deep meaning” of Xi’s speeches on the primacy of “one country” and the “red lines” Beijing laid out for protecting national security.
It took the protests to “realize that President Xi had from the start given us very clear guidance; only by following it could Hong Kong be an important part of the nation,” Lam said.
Yu reported from Hong Kong.