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Xi Jinping, China's president, speaks at the West Kowloon Station in Hong Kong, China, on June 30 2022. Picture: BLOOMBERG/JUSTIN CHIN
Xi Jinping, China's president, speaks at the West Kowloon Station in Hong Kong, China, on June 30 2022. Picture: BLOOMBERG/JUSTIN CHIN

President Xi Jinping said Hong Kong has been “reborn” after facing one challenge after another since he last visited five years ago, as he returned to the city on Thursday to mark its 25th anniversary of Chinese rule.  

The city’s “one country, two systems” governance formula will ensure its prosperity and stability, as the finance hub contributes to China’s “great reunification”, the Chinese leader said in a short speech delivered at West Kowloon Station.

Xi arrived with his wife, Peng Liyuan, to crowds of schoolchildren waving flags and a traditional lion dance, after taking the city’s high-speed rail link from mainland China. Outgoing CEO Carrie Lam was at the reception, along with her successor, John Lee — a former police official and security minister.

They were joined by former city leader Leung Chun-ying and Zheng Yanxiong, the head of the secretive agency China created to implement its controversial security law.

China has not released Xi’s itinerary, but he is expected to stay overnight in the neighbouring Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen, as Hong Kong experiences it worst Covid surge since April with about 2,000 cases on Wednesday. A banquet hosted by 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 on Friday to swear in Lee.

The trip is Xi’s first to the city since overseeing twin crackdowns on political dissent and Covid-19, which risked the former British colony’s future as an international centre of commerce. It is also his first outside mainland China in almost 900 days, after his Covid Zero policy restricted his travel to domestic engagements.

Xi’s unprecedented decision to set foot in a city openly operating with thousands of community virus cases is evidence of his determination to signal China’s firm control of the once freewheeling former British colony.

The July 1 celebrations mark 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 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. 

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 about 3,000 other people involved in the celebrations, the Post reported. Drones have been banned across the city, and aircraft prohibited from flying over Victoria Harbor. 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.

Bloomberg News. For more articles like this please visit Bloomberg.com.

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