Tokyo | Xi Jinping was greeted by flag-waving school children, lion dancers and fawning public servants as he stepped off a high-speed train connecting mainland China to Hong Kong.
Inside the West Kowloon station, which had been closed since the early days of the pandemic, China’s leader and his wife Peng Liyuan smiled and waved as they were led along a red carpet while a police band played on. Security barricades and hundreds of police surrounded the site.
“Hong Kong has withstood severe tests again and again, overcoming challenges one by one, After the wind and rain, Hong Kong has risen from the ashes,” Xi said in a speech shortly after his arrival on Thursday afternoon.
It was a historic moment for Hong Kong, which symbolises the end of three years of political upheaval as the city transitioned from a liberal international finance hub into a police state firmly under Beijing’s control.
For many, Xi’s arrival cements China’s efforts to bring the city to heel following mass pro-democracy protests in 2019. Big business, the foundation of the high-rise city’s success, is hopeful life will return to normal without the chaos of mass protests and COVID-19 restrictions.
For other Hongkongers though, Xi’s presence for the 25th anniversary of the handover from British rule is seen as the final nail in the coffin for the semi-autonomous political and legal system they were promised would endure under the “one country, two systems” model until 2047.
The Carrie Lam era
“From Hongkongers’ point of view, it is already the end of ‘one country, two systems’. In fact, it is ‘one country, one system’ now. All the freedom that we had before is gone and there is no sign we will have it back,” said Ted Hui, a former legislator who now lives in exile with his family in Australia, told AFR Weekend.
“So if you ask me what happens in 2047, it doesn’t matter anymore. It is 2047 now. It is important that free countries see that clearly and do not have any hope about Hong Kong’s freedoms.”
Hong Kong has changed dramatically since Xi’s last visit in 2017 for the 20th handover anniversary and to swear in chief executive Carrie Lam. Mass pro-democracy protests in 2019 erupted into violent clashes with police and disrupted life in the city for six months.
While the rest of the world was distracted by the global pandemic, Xi responded in 2020 with national security laws which have effectively brought the city to heel.
The protest movement has vanished, most of China’s outspoken critics have been jailed or live in exile and political parties and media outlets critical of Beijing have been disbanded. More than 180 people have been arrested under the security laws, while 47 politicians and campaigners are still waiting trial on charges of conspiracy to commit subversion.
Xi’s arrival in Hong Kong just months before the 20th Communist Party Congress, which will likely appoint him leader for a third term, is designed to send a powerful political message.
“It is symbolically important. Beijing wants to send a signal that Hong Kong is stabilised, and they have been successful restoring political order. It is a demonstration of victory,” says Dongshu Liu, an assistant professor at Hong Kong’s City University.
“For Xi himself, this is an important moment. In the past two years, there have been internal discussions about whether the government is managing Hong Kong well. Xi is demonstrating internally to other political elite ‘I am successful in handling the Hong Kong crisis and defeating the evil western enemies’.”
Xi’s first post-pandemic trip
It was unclear whether Xi would make the trip until a week ago. He has not left mainland China since the start of the pandemic and the risks of being exposed to COVID-19 in Hong Kong, where cases are rising again, are higher than in mainland China.
Xi’s visit takes place in a COVID-19 bubble where everyone he comes into contact with has been tested and spent time in quarantine. Security is also tight with thousands of police deployed around the city and barricades surrounding the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre where the handover ceremony takes place.
The mood is in sharp contrast to the night of the handover 25 years earlier.
Many of the city’s residents were out celebrating as the British flag was lowered at an emotional ceremony which marked the end of 150 years of colonial rule. As the last governor, Chris Patten and his family sailed away on the Royal Yacht Britannia and crowds flocked to the harbour for an elaborate fireworks display. Pro-democracy leader Martin Lee addressed a crowd from the Legislative Council Building and 12,000 people danced until dawn at a handover party.
There was a sense of surprise the next morning when residents woke up to find nothing had changed. Life went on as normal in capitalist Hong Kong for many years as the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre faded and China appeared to be on a more liberal trajectory.
“Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise and that is the unshakeable destiny,” Patten declared before sailing away.
Protests in a restless state
More than a decade later, Hongkongers became restless as Patten’s words rang hollow. After a largely peaceful 79-day protest dubbed the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014, simmering anger over China’s gradual encroachment on the city’s civil liberties erupted in 2019.
An estimated two million people, almost 30 per cent of the population, marched in the streets in June that year to demand the abolition of a bill that meant criminals could be extradited to mainland China, and Lam’s resignation. The protests that followed resulted in violent clashes with police and disrupted life in the city for six months.
“It is the only liberal society I can think of which is having all its freedoms stripped away vengefully and comprehensively by what is, in effect, a totalitarian state,” Patten told the BBC this week, when asked about China’s security clampdown which followed in 2020.
Hui, who is focused on lobbying foreign governments to put pressure China, says there is little chance of the pro-democracy movement being resurrected.
“People are afraid, and they don’t want to go to jail. The rules of the game have changed, so they have to stay docile,” he says. “People are looking for ways to express themselves, but they can’t do it through civil society, or media because it is tightly controlled, and they can’t find justice in the judiciary,” he says.
New political calm
Many in the city, particularly the business lobby, support the current period of political calm and say Hong Kong remains an important access point to China for the rest of the world.
New chief executive John Lee, who was sworn in on Friday, will prioritise security above anything else. But with most of Beijing’s critics silenced, he is expected to focus on Hong Kong’s pandemic recovery and address social issues such as housing.
“It is our view that Hong Kong remains very important in the region as a financial centre,” says the Australian Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong chairman Robert Quinlivan. “In our discussions with the government, we have always said Hong Kong needs to remain open, maintain the rule of the law, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press.”
The business lobby’s biggest concern is the city’s strict quarantine rules, which are damaging the city’s reputation as an international hub. There are signs those rules may ease, but Hong Kong’s borders may still open to mainland China before the rest of the world.
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