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Xi of China visits a changed Hong Kong for the anniversary of the handover

NNeither the headwinds of an incoming typhoon nor a flurry of COVID-19 cases among government officials this week prevented Chinese President Xi Jinping from visiting Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of the city’s July 1 return to the Chinese rule, in a tightly choreographed visit intended to strengthen Beijing’s hold over the city.

Xi arrived Thursday by high-speed train from the mainland tech metropolis of Shenzhen, welcomed by supporters waving flags and placards carrying slogans such as: “The Pearl of the East retains its romance. The vitality city has become better than before.”

The trip is Xi’s first outside mainland China since January 2020, when his zero-COVID policy slammed the country’s borders. It is also his first visit to Hong Kong since hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the 2019 anti-government protests, which posed a challenge to Beijing’s rule in the Special Administrative Region. In a subsequent crackdown, thousands have been arrested, opposition lawmakers imprisoned, and newspapers and civil society groups shut down.

“Hong Kong has endured one tough challenge after another, overcoming one danger after another,” he said in a short speech when he arrived. “After the storm, Hong Kong has been reborn from the ashes and shows a thriving vitality.”

Experts say his visit is akin to a victory round, to show that he has managed to recreate Hong Kong at a time when questions have been raised about his stewardship of China over its zero-COVID policy and the Russian invasion. from Ukraine. Xi is seeking an unusual third term at party rallies in November.

“Xi needs to project success and uses his visit to Hong Kong to show it,” said Steve Tsang, the director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “Xi is going to use his visit to Hong Kong to project an amazing performance.”

Read more: The Rising Cost of China’s Zero-COVID Policy

Bright red Chinese flags raised before the visit waved all over the city in the rain and wind as Typhoon Chaba approached the city. Signs on flyovers promise a new era of stability, prosperity and opportunity.

After arriving on Thursday, Xi visited Hong Kong Science Park, which is home to several technology companies. He back to the mainland Thursday evening, before returning to Hong Kong on Friday to attend the inauguration of the city’s new Chief Executive, John Lee, who had been chosen by Beijing. Xi was wearing an N-95 facemask with the numbers “25” printed on it in red.

In a speech following Lee’s swearing in, he set out expectations for Lee’s government, including solving deep-seated problems such as housing. He also asked Hongkongers to “accept the mainstream values ​​centered on love of the motherland and love for Hong Kong”, saying Hong Kong people have “learned the hard way” that Hong Kong “cannot afford chaos.” to see”.


A Chinese flag flies in a public housing estate to mark the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in Hong Kong on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

Paul Yeung—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Hong Kong implemented a closed bubble to keep COVID-19 at bay during the visit, putting thousands of government officials in hotel quarantine this week and requiring them to undergo rapid antigen testing. In recent weeks, several officials have tested positive, and more than 2,000 cases were recorded on Wednesday for the first time since April.

The authorities wanted to make sure there were no disturbances. At the beginning of the week, two meters high flood defenses were erected along the roads near the exhibition center, where several important ceremonies are held. Roads in Wan Chai, where most of the events take place, have been closed, causing traffic to rush through the city. Police presence in some neighborhoods such as Causeway Bay seemed higher than usual this week. In the Central Business District, the text on a large red sign on a curbside railing reminded passersby that anyone who participates in group gatherings of more than four people — rules ostensibly in place to control COVID-19 — will face a fine or prosecution. to get.


A Hong Kong special forces unit patrols the city’s Wan Chai district on June 30, 2022, when Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Hong Kong to attend celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover of Great Britain to China.

Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images

At least ten journalists were barred from attending the ceremony, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA). The government said coverage was limited due to “epidemic prevention needs, security requirements and location restrictions”.

Ahead of Xi’s crackdown on Hong Kong, protest marches were a common occurrence on July 1. One of the last remaining pro-democracy groups in the city, the League of Social Democrats (LSD), said they are not holding up their normal protest, according to local news website Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on the 25th anniversary after some of his volunteers had been called to meetings by the National Security Police. The HKFP reported that police searched the homes of several LSD members this week.

Read more: As Hong Kong marks 25 years of British handover, its ‘cage houses’ remain a stark reminder of its inequalities

Other groups seemed to proceed cautiously. The Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute said on June 28 it was delaying the publication of a survey on the transfer “in response to suggestions” from the government.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and author of the book Vigilius: Hong Kong on the Brink, tells TIME that Xi’s journey underscores how Hong Kong has changed in recent years to become more like neighboring mainland cities — including his arrival at the West Kowloon High Speed ​​Rail Station. The station sparked controversy in 2018 after the decision to have security checked by staff from the mainland, even though it is located in Hong Kong. The roads were lined with flood defenses and activist groups were warned in advance to ensure there would be no public expressions of displeasure to compete with the official ceremonies on July 1.

“This is what routinely happens in mainland cities ahead of political anniversaries such as the National Day, but not what happened in Hong Kong on July 1, and didn’t happen there as recently as Xi’s visit.” in July last year to 2017.”


An annual protest march in central Hong Kong on July 1, 2014 in the demand for democracy.

Kin Cheung/AP

For most of the past 25 years, people in Hong Kong have fought to protect and enhance the city’s features that set it apart from the mainland, such as a freer press, more independent courts and a government structure that, while far from completely democratic, had institutions where a solid public debate on all kinds of topics could take place, says Wasserstrom. That was especially true in the 2010s when measures to narrow the space between Hong Kong and the mainland met with widespread protests.

But that era seems to be over — despite the 1997 handover promise that Hong Kong would maintain a high level of autonomy for 50 years — after Hong Kong’s suppression and the 2020 implementation of a national security law used to crack down on dissent. .

The changes in Hong Kong, Wasserstrom said, are “a trend that Beijing welcomes, but many locals have resisted the protests of the 2010s and still find them disturbing.”

More must-read stories from TIME


write to Amy Gunia at [email protected]

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