Chinese leader Xi Jinping marked the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return with a speech on Friday that emphasized Beijing’s control of the former British colony under his vision of “one country, two systems” — countering criticism that policies and civil liberties were promised for the next quarter. – century have been largely erased under Chinese rule.
Xi praised the city for overcoming “violent social unrest” – a reference to mass pro-democracy protests in 2019 that were followed by a crackdown by Beijing that stamped out dissent and shut down independent media, aligning Hong Kong with tighter controls under China’s ruling Communist Party.
The shift shocked many in the city of 7.4 million that Britain returned to China in 1997 after ruling it as a colony for more than a century. As part of the deal, China agreed to allow Hong Kong to have its own government and legal system for 50 years.
In the following years, Hong Kong activists pushed back against Chinese efforts to curtail freedoms and even called for fully democratic elections, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to march in the streets.
Under Xi, that pushback has been muted. For years, the anniversary of the July 1st surrender was marked with a formal ceremony in the morning and a protest march in the afternoon. Now the protesters have been silenced in what the Communist Party hails as restoring stability to the city.
Xi said Beijing has “full jurisdiction” over Hong Kong and that Hong Kong must respect Chinese leadership as Beijing allows regions such as Hong Kong and neighboring Macau to maintain their capitalist system and a degree of autonomy .
“After returning to the motherland, Hong Kong has overcome all kinds of challenges and steadily moved forward,” Xi said. “Whether it was the international financial crisis, the coronavirus pandemic or violent social unrest, nothing has stopped Hong Kong’s progress.”
His speech represented the culmination of what China scholar Jeff Wasserstrom described as a push and pull between two competing visions of “one country, two systems.”
Many in Hong Kong “have fought for a stronger understanding of the two systems, to have an idea that there is a very different way of life there,” said Wasserstrom, a professor at UC Irvine and author of “Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.” .
That view, at least for now, has lost out to the Communist Party’s inner circle, which is primarily interested in preserving the economic advantages of Hong Kong’s capitalist system, he said.
Hong Kong resident Grace Chan saw little reason to celebrate on Friday. “It has been very difficult for the people of Hong Kong in recent years,” he said. “I just wanted to relax today and not surround myself in a negative atmosphere for too long.”
Since the 2019 protests, authorities have used a sweeping national security law to arrest dozens of activists, media figures and democracy advocates. They introduced a more patriotic school curriculum and revamped electoral laws to keep opposition politicians deemed unpatriotic enough out of the city’s legislature.
In his view, China’s Communist Party has restored stability to a city wracked by protests seen as a direct challenge to its rule. For Western democracies, Xi has undermined the freedoms and way of life that set the city apart from mainland China and made it a global economic and trade hub.
US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement that China’s policies towards Hong Kong, including the National Security Act, “have undermined the institutions, norms and systems that have been the foundation of international trust in Hong Kong”.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We have seen a steady erosion of political and civil rights since the National Security Act was brought into force on 30 June 2020. The authorities have stifled opposition, criminalized dissent and expelled anyone who can speak the truth in power.”
Xi warned that there would be no tolerance for foreign interference or traitors meddling in Hong Kong affairs. He said “safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests” is of the highest priority.
“No one in any country or region in the world will allow foreign countries or even treacherous forces and persons to seize power,” he said, adding that only with patriots ruling Hong Kong can long-term stability be ensured.
He said “one country, two systems” was still a good system that “must be maintained for a long time”.
In the remote village of Tai O, where houses are built on stilts, fisherman Ng Koon-yau is fine with Beijing being in charge.
“Hong Kong is part of China and I never thought of moving anywhere else,” said Ng, who came from China’s neighboring Guangdong province in the 1950s. “I hope China will make Hong Kong a better place , where all can prosper.”
Xi also stressed the importance of caring for Hong Kong’s youth. Many of the protesters in pro-democracy movements in 2014 and 2019 were students, many frustrated not only by the loss of promised civil liberties but also by an increasingly competitive job market and rising housing costs.
“It is necessary to help the majority of young people to solve the difficulties they face in their studies, employment and entrepreneurship and property ownership,” he said. “More opportunities must be created for them to develop and become talents.”
Xi’s trip to Hong Kong was his first outside mainland China since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020. He last visited Hong Kong in 2017 for the 20th anniversary of the handover.
Thousands of visitors had to undergo daily coronavirus tests and check into quarantined hotels before attending events with Xi.
Xi officiated at the inauguration of Hong Kong’s new leader, John Lee, a former security chief who oversaw a crackdown on dissent.
“The next five years will be a critical time for Hong Kong to move from governance to prosperity,” Li said.
He has previously indicated plans to follow through on a long-standing demand for the city to enact its own laws to protect the Chinese government from acts that threaten national security. An earlier initiative was abandoned after major protests in 2003.
Amnesty International warned that Li’s plans for laws governing state secrets and cyber security would likely mirror similar laws in China.
“The extremely broad definition of such laws facilitates arbitrary enforcement, which creates even more uncertainty and fear for people in Hong Kong,” said the group’s Asia-Pacific regional director, Erwin van der Borght.
In a morning flag-raising ceremony — attended by Lee and his predecessor, Carrie Lam, but not Xi — police officers carrying Chinese and Hong Kong flags paraded through Golden Bauhinia Square in Chinese “goosebump” style, replacing a British course style. Guests stood at attention as the Chinese national anthem played.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.