HONG KONG (AP) — Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived Thursday in Hong Kong to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the British handover of a city that his rule has transformed from a global hub known for its political freedoms to one that is much more tightly controlled by the Communist Party.
In a staged event carried live on Chinese TV, students and others lined the platform of a high-speed rail station and packed a red carpet to greet the leader making his first trip outside of mainland China in nearly 2 ½ years — a choice that underscored Hong Kong's ever-closer ties to the mainland. Waving small red Chinese and Hong Kong flags, the students chanted “Welcome, welcome! Warm welcome!” while city leader Carrie Lam greeted Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan.
Under Xi's leadership, China has reshaped Hong Kong, cracking down on protests, imposing a strict national security law used to silence dissent, introducing a more "patriotic" curriculum in schools, and revamping election laws to keep opposition politicians out of the city’s Legislature. The changes have all but eliminated dissenting voices in a place once known for its vibrant political debate and have driven many to leave.
In its view, China's ruling Communist Party has restored stability to a city that was wracked with pro-democracy protests in 2019. For many in the U.S., the U.K. and other democratic nations, Xi has undermined the freedoms and way of life that distinguished the city from mainland China and made it a international center for finance and trade.
In an apparent reference to the 2019 protests, Xi told well-wishers on his arrival that Hong Kong has overcome many challenges over the years and had been “reborn from the ashes” with “vigorous vitality.” Later after meeting with Lam, he praised her for ending what he said was chaos that had gripped the city and for ensuring that only “patriots” would rule Hong Kong.
“As long as we stick to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, Hong Kong will certainly have a brighter future and will make new and bigger contributions to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” he said in a speech at the Hong Kong West Kowloon train station.
Since Britain returned the territory to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong has been a special administrative region that, like nearby Macao, is governed separately from the rest of China. But Xi has steadily eroded that distinction, and critics say, undermined the policy of maintaining two systems.
On Friday, he will celebrate the anniversary of the handover and officiate at the swearing in of John Lee, who will succeed Lam as city leader.
It is Xi's first time outside of mainland China since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and Beijing imposed a “zero-COVID” policy that includes severe restrictions on travel. It’s also his first visit to Hong Kong since the massive protests that grew to include calls for broader democratic freedoms — but only appeared to harden Beijing’s resolve to limit civil liberties in the territory.
Local media reported that Xi and Peng planned to spend Thursday night in the Chinese city of Shenzhen — 15 minutes away from Hong Kong by high-speed train — and return to the city on Friday. It’s not clear why that’s the case but could reflect concerns about COVID-19 or security.
The combination of China's COVID-19 policies and its crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong have dramatically changed the city in the past two years.
Beijing has used the national security law to arrest over 150 pro-democracy activists and supporters. National security police have targeted the city's most outspoken pro-democracy media in Hong Kong, with raids that forced several outlets to shut down, including the city's last pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily.
The changes to election laws reduced the number of lawmakers who are directly voted in, and a new committee now vets the applications of those planning to run for office, to ensure they are “patriots” loyal to Beijing. Many say that has turned the Legislature into a body that merely provides a rubber stamp for Beijing's policies.
Meanwhile, tough COVID-19 quarantine restrictions for incoming travelers have led to what observers call “brain drain” as tens of thousands left for cities like Singapore and Dubai that have resumed quarantine-free travel.
As part of his carefully choreographed visit, Xi met Thursday with some 160 people from various sectors of Hong Kong, including businessmen, religious leaders and politicians. He then visited the Hong Kong Science Park to inspect Hong Kong’s development of innovation and technology, according to a government statement.
Earlier this week, thousands of guests for the July 1 events — including top officials, lawmakers and diplomats — checked in to quarantine hotels and have taken daily tests as part of coronavirus precautions.
Police have also ramped up security, designating security zones and road closures as well as a no-fly zone for Friday.
More than 10 journalists from local and international media outlets had their applications to cover the July 1 events rejected this week on “security grounds.”
Associated Press news assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed to this report.