Even before he set foot in Hong Kong, President Xi Jinping’s intention was clear: to usher in a new head of the city under the firm grip of Communist Party rule.
In his first trip outside the mainland since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Xi arrived in Hong Kong on Thursday afternoon to mark the 25th anniversary of his handover from the UK and to attend the swearing-in of new CEO John Lee on Friday. Xi’s presence is tantamount to a declaration of confidence in the city’s stability after years of COVID-19, political protests and subsequent crackdown on dissent.
It was also a moment for Xi to further solidify his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, months before he is expected to break with the norms of the post-Maoist era and secure a third term like a president. Many believe that he will not stop there.
Stepping off the high-speed train at Hong Kong’s Kowloon West Station, Xi and his wife were greeted by officials and masked schoolchildren, who chanted warm greetings and waved flowers and flags of China and Hong Kong.
As the couple walked down the winding red carpet to the tune of a marching band, other attendees held long red banners to welcome their arrival and swayed under their lion dance costumes. Around the station, commemorative decorations proclaimed: “A new era. Stability. Prosperity. Possibility. “
“Symbolism speaks volumes,” said Mingxing Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “It’s an opportunity to show he’s in charge.”
The Chinese leader has returned to Hong Kong, which has changed a lot since his last visit to the city five years ago. The city shook in 2019 mass protests a bill expanding Beijing’s jurisdiction over the former British colony. Then COVID-19 broke out, limiting travel and gatherings. As violent clashes between police and demonstrators subsided, Beijing took national security law as a result, hundreds of protesters, journalists and politicians were imprisoned and others fled abroad.
These measures effectively hastened Hong Kong’s 50-year transition to full Chinese rule, a period during which the city was expected to maintain a high level of autonomy and democratic freedoms under “one country, two systems”. model formulated the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. In a short speech upon his arrival, Xi said that Hong Kong is a testament to the success of this principle.
“Hong Kong has withstood test after ordeal, overcoming all the risks and challenges,” he said. “Following this experience, Hong Kong is rising from the ashes, showing energy and vitality… As long as we unwaveringly stand for the principle of “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong will undoubtedly have an even brighter future.”
But critics inside and outside the city argue otherwise, saying that “one country, two systems” has essentially been abandoned by Beijing despite its signed deal with the UK.
“Hong Kong is now just another Chinese city in every way,” Pei said.
This year is of extremely important political significance for Xi, who is expected to be granted another presidential term in the fall by the Chinese National Congress. By quelling the unrest in Hong Kong and installing a distinctly pro-Beijing government, he has succeeded in one of his key priorities: reuniting the Chinese “homeland” and the territories it considers its own.
This also includes Taiwan, another target of Deng’s divided rule model. Xi urged more strongly for reunion with a self-governing island, although its ruling political party, along with the majority of Taiwanese citizens, oppose union and aggression on the mainland, leading to increased cross-strait friction and fear that Beijing might try to achieve its goal militarily.
“Beijing’s presence in Hong Kong will only reinforce these views in Taiwan,” said Ja Yan Chong, an assistant professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “Beijing can make promises, like let Hong Kong have its own system and democracy, but in the end it’s quite willing to take them away.”
US and UK criticized China’s suppression of democracy, free speech and civil liberties in Hong Kong under the National Security Act are allegations that the current Hong Kong government dismisses as “unfounded” and as foreign interference in internal affairs. Washington imposed sanctions on dozens of Hong Kong officials, including new chief executive Lee and his predecessor, Carrie Lam.
The tainted relationship between China and Western democracies has been further affected by China’s implicit support for Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. At the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Madrid, the alliance intends to change of its strategic vision to address China for the first time, calling Beijing a “strategic challenge” and raising concerns about its political and economic ambitions and policies.
Despite Xi’s assertion of confidence in Hong Kong’s future, the extreme measures taken in connection with his visit point to lingering fears of further political or pandemic upheavals.
Two senior Hong Kong officials tested positive for coronavirus days before Xi’s arrival, heightening concerns over risks of infection. Thousands of residents are in quarantine to take part in the festivities. South China Morning Post.
The authorities also leave little to chance when it comes to possible manifestations of political opposition. The city sent thousands of police officers to the events, banned the use of drones and forced several arrests for alleged acts of mutiny, according to local media.
While Chinese state media confirmed Xi Jinping’s planned visit this week, further details, even for attendees, were scarce due to a tightly controlled and coordinated agenda. The Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong said this week that at least 10 local and foreign media journalists were denied coverage “for security reasons” and some news outlets were unable to apply for accreditation at all.
Even with all precautions, Xi will likely head back to Shenzhen, on the mainland opposite Hong Kong, to stay there on Thursday evening before returning to Hong Kong on Friday, according to the South China Morning Post.
“This shows that officials are not completely sure that everything is under control in Hong Kong,” said Ho-Fung Hung, professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University.
With arrests, a purge of “unpatriotic” politicians, and the liquidation of independent media, significant opposition to Hong Kong’s new leadership was all but crushed. However, Li and Xi still have to confront the city’s economic future, which has been hit hard by China’s strict zero-COVID-19 protocols.
At the same time, residents and companies started leaving against the backdrop of political turmoil and the pandemic, raising fears of a brain drain and jeopardizing Hong Kong’s status as a major international business and financial centre.
AT interview conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong last year, 57.5% of respondents aged 15 to 30 would like to leave the city, up from 46.8% in 2018. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said in its latest annual survey that due to the pandemic, 26% of businesses are more likely to leave, with 44% of respondents saying they are personally eyeing an exit.
Xi said Hong Kong’s problems could be overcome with the mainland’s strong support. Recently, he emphasized the importance of Hong Kong’s sustainable development and engagement with youth, as well as the economic and industrial integration of the territory with the mainland through the neighboring province of Guangdong.
“The big challenge now will be to revive the economy,” Hung said. “They want to show that they have the determination to do it, but there is no easy way to guarantee the world that Hong Kong is still good for business.”