As China’s leader Xi Jinping visits Hong Kong to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the handover from Britain, he arrives in a city dramatically transformed from three years ago, when millions took to the streets in the biggest challenge to Beijing’s rule in decades.
Mr. Xi’s ruling Communist Party has quelled this challenge by tightening its grip. Authorities have arrested thousands of protesters and activists, imposed a national security law that silenced dissent and rewrote electoral rules to exclude Beijing’s critics.
“This is an important journey for him,” said John P. Burns, professor emeritus of politics at the University of Hong Kong. “Of course, it’s about celebrating the 25th anniversary and all that, but it’s also declaring victory over the inclusive democratic opposition and its supporters.”
On Friday, Mr. Xi appointed a hand-picked former security official to be the city’s next leader. He had earlier met with deputies who were chosen after the electoral reform in Beijing among the “patriots” only to take up their posts in Hong Kong.
Officials from Hong Kong and China attended a brief ceremony on Friday morning as a police honor guard raised the Chinese and Hong Kong flags to mark the anniversary. A strong wind blew, the sky was overcast and threatening rain. A government helicopter carrying a large Chinese flag, followed by another carrying a smaller Hong Kong flag, flew into Victoria Harbor where the 8 a.m. celebration took place, followed by a fireboat spraying water from its hoses.
But the pomp and festivity stood in stark contrast to the relative calm on the streets with an apparent security presence. Groups of police patrolled the neighborhoods near the venue, and rows of police vehicles lined the entrances to several subway stations. For many Hong Kong residents, the anniversary of the handover and Mr. Xi’s visit had little significance besides a day off.
The central government doesn’t have to do much for Hong Kong. Just let Hong Kong fix things on its own. It’s a free economy, isn’t it? “She’s never been under much rule before,” said Joeson Kwak, a 33-year-old interior design contractor who was in Wanchai County eating breakfast. “I don’t feel anything special today. I’m glad I don’t have to go to work today.”
Mr. Xi’s visit is a message aimed at bolstering Beijing’s rule over Hong Kong for the city’s 7.5 million residents, as well as a message of defiance to Western governments that have denounced his crackdown. The United States, Britain and other countries have accused China of reneging on its promises to allow Hong Kong to maintain its protection of individual rights for 50 years under an arrangement known as one country, two systems.
The subjugation of Hong Kong is also of personal importance to Mr. Shi. It will help polish his standing among the Communist Party elite at a defining moment as he pursues a third five-year presidential term, which he is widely expected to secure later this year.
“We can expect the party congress in October to highlight the success of One Country, Two Systems,” said Sonny Lu, a Hong Kong political commentator.
For local activists, July 1 was the anniversary of the pivotal demonstrations. But a combination of epidemic restrictions and political repression has largely wiped out such gatherings. One left-wing group, the League of Social Democrats, has continued to mark important dates with small demonstrations of just four people, which is technically permissible under social distancing rules.
But after visits from the National Security Police, the group announced this week that it would not organize a protest on Friday. Avery Ng, the group’s general secretary, said group members are under constant surveillance and their organization has been threatened with closure if they attempt to demonstrate.
“It’s just like China,” he said.
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