Xi Jinping defends China’s vision for Hong Kong on 25th anniversary of handover


Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return with a speech Friday that emphasized Beijing’s control over the former British colony under its vision of “one country, two systems,” countering criticism the freedoms 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 massive pro-democracy protests in 2019 that were followed by a Beijing-driven crackdown on dissent and shut down independent media, aligning Hong Kong more closely with stricter controls under China’s ruling Communist Party.

The shift shocked many in the city of 7.4 million people that Britain returned to China in 1997 after running it as a colony for over a century. As part of the agreement, China agreed to allow Hong Kong to have its own government and legal system for 50 years.

In the ensuing years, Hong Kong activists pushed back against Chinese efforts to curtail freedoms in the city and made demands for fully democratic elections, drawing out hundreds of thousands of people for marches in the streets.

Officials and guests attend a flag-raising ceremony in Hong Kong’s Golden Bauhinia Square on Friday to mark the 25th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule. (Magnum Chan/The Associated Press)

For years, the anniversary of the July 1 handover was marked by an official ceremony in the morning and a protest march in the afternoon. Now, protesters have been silenced in what the Communist Party hails as restoring stability to the city.

On Friday, Xi said Beijing has “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, and Hong Kong should respect Chinese leadership, even as Beijing allows regions like Hong Kong and neighbouring Macao to maintain their capitalist system and a degree of autonomy.

Xi, centre, and his wife, Peng Liyuan, second from left, accompanied by Chief Executive John Lee, left, wave as they depart the West Kowloon Station of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link in Hong Kong on Friday. (Hong Kong Government Information Services/The Associated Press)

“After the return to the motherland, Hong Kong has overcome all kinds of challenges and moved forwards steadily,” Xi said. “Regardless of whether it was the international financial crisis, the coronavirus pandemic or violent social unrest, nothing has stopped Hong Kong’s progress.”

‘Push and pull’ between competing visions

His speech represented the culmination of what scholar Jeff Wasserstrom has described as a push and pull between two competing visions of one country, two systems.

Many in Hong Kong “fought for a more robust understanding of the two systems, to have an idea that there’s a very different lifestyle there,” said Wasserstrom, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.

That view, at least for now, has lost out to the narrower one of the Communist Party, which is mainly interested in maintaining the economic advantages of Hong Kong’s capitalist system, he said.

Hong Kong resident Grace Chan saw little reason to celebrate on Friday.

“It’s been very difficult for Hong Kong people in recent years,” she said. “I just wanted to relax today and not to surround myself in a negative atmosphere for too long.”

Since the 2019 protests, authorities have used a sweeping national security law to arrest scores of activists, media figures and democracy supporters. They introduced a more patriotic curriculum in schools and revamped election laws to keep opposition politicians who are deemed not patriotic enough out of the city’s legislature.

In its view, China’s Communist Party has restored stability to a city wracked with demonstrations seen as a direct challenge to its rule. For Western democracies, Xi has undermined the freedoms and way of life that had distinguished the city from mainland China and made it a global finance and trade hub.

Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, said in a statement that China’s policies toward Hong Kong, including the national security law, have “shaken the institutions, rules and systems that had been the basis of international confidence in Hong Kong.”

Steady erosion of rights, says U.K. minister

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We have seen a steady erosion of political and civil rights since the imposition of the National Security Law on June 30, 2020. Authorities have stifled opposition, criminalized dissent and driven out anyone who can speak truth to power.”

Xi warned there would be no tolerance for foreign interference or traitors meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs. He said “safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests” is of the highest priority.

“Nobody in any country or region in the world will allow foreign countries or even traitorous forces and figures to seize power,” he said, adding that only by having patriots governing Hong Kong can it ensure long-term stability.

He said one country, two systems was still good and “must be maintained for a long time.”

Xi also stressed the importance of caring for the youth of Hong Kong. Protests in pro-democracy movements in 2014 and 2019 included students disillusioned by the loss of promised political freedoms and an increasingly competitive job market and rising housing costs.

“It is necessary to help the majority of young people solve the difficulties they face in their studies, employment, and in entrepreneurship and property ownership,” China’s leader said. “There must be more opportunities created for them to grow and become talents.”

Xi’s trip to Hong Kong was his first outside mainland China since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in January 2020. He had last visited Hong Kong in 2017 for the 20th anniversary of the handover.

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