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Xi Jinping visits Hong Kong changed by Covid, protests to swear in new leader

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HONG KONG – Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday defended the “one country, two systems” governance in Hong Kong during a rare visit to the Chinese territory amid increasingly violent Beijing’s authoritarianism.

Xi was in Hong Kong to swear in his chosen new leader, John Lee, as the former British colony returned to Chinese rule 25 years ago. The trip, Xi’s first outside mainland China since January 2020, is widely seen as a round of victory in a once politically raw city where even the tiniest signs of discord are now eradicated.

“After ups and downs, people have learned the hard way that Hong Kong cannot be destabilized and cannot afford to seek chaos,” Xi said, avoiding any direct mention of the large-scale anti-government protests that have raged over a large period of time. part of 2019 attracted worldwide attention. †

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While the city should be governed by “patriots,” Xi said, it should also maintain its unique status and strengths, including as an international financial, shipping and aviation hub. That status has been put to the test during the coronavirus pandemic by “zero-covid” restrictions that have largely cut Hong Kong and mainland China off from the world.

Xi said there was no reason to change the “one country, two systems” principle, which was designed to give Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy after the handover in 1997.

Critics say autonomy, as well as pre-handover political freedoms that Hong Kong residents promised to retain for the first 50 years under Chinese rule, have been severely undermined by a national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020.

“They will portray Hong Kong as a successful example of ‘one country, two systems’,” Nathan Law, a pro-democracy activist living in self-exile in Britain, said this week. “But for many people in Hong Kong, including myself, all we can feel is a deep betrayal and also anger and sadness because we have never felt that Beijing respects our community and the promises they have given us.”

Hong Kong has undergone a seismic change since Xi’s last visit in 2017, when he warned of any challenge to Chinese sovereignty. Two years later, the city was rocked by months of pro-democracy protests that sometimes turned violent, with some protesters calling for Hong Kong’s independence.

Beijing responded by imposing the national security law and said it was necessary to restore order. Since then, nearly 200 people have been arrested on charges of subversion, secession, terrorism or conspiracy with foreign forces, including journalists and many of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy figures. Multiple pro-democracy news channels have been shut down and the local legislature now has no pro-democracy opposition.

The crackdown in Hong Kong has been widely condemned internationally, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on Thursday to “restore the promised freedoms of Hong Kongers”.

Police are standing guard at West Kowloon Station in Hong Kong, where Xi arrived on Thursday. Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

Defenders of the government’s actions say national security considerations sometimes affect rights and freedoms, just as they do in Western countries. Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing legislator who chairs Lee’s Executive Council, said Hong Kong still has judicial, financial and other systems different from those in the mainland but needed a “reset” after the protests of 2019.

“It’s important to remember that our individual systems are only sustainable if we don’t harm the country,” she told NBC News this week. “It is only sustainable if Hong Kong accepts China’s sovereignty and upholds China’s security and development interests.”

Police were on the scene for Xi’s visit to the city of 7.4 million, where posters celebrating the 25th anniversary of the transfer herald a “new era” of stability. Media coverage of the anniversary events, which had already banned multiple outlets, was further curtailed this week when at least 10 journalists who applied for local and international media were turned down for “security reasons”.

Thousands of guests and staff had to undergo daily coronavirus tests and quarantine before the events, in line with Covid-19 restrictions. Hong Kong, which had the worst outbreak of the pandemic this spring, has seen a further rise in cases, with 2,358 reported on Thursday.

Rather than stay in Hong Kong during his two-day visit, Xi spent the night crossing the mainland border in Shenzhen city. He was due to leave shortly after the inauguration.

Friday kicked off with a flag-raising ceremony in Victoria Harbor’s Golden Bauhinia Square amid high winds and a typhoon warning. It was the second year that the Hong Kong police force used mainland China’s “goose steps” style at the ceremony, which was extended to the entire police force on Friday, replacing the British-style march used in colonial times. used.

Later, during a socially distancing ceremony in which officials wore masks marked “25,” swore in Xi Lee, the lone candidate in a May election decided by a committee made up of fewer than 1,500 mostly pro-Beijing members. Lee, who served as Hong Kong’s security secretary during the 2019 protests, is one of the top Hong Kong officials who have been sanctioned by the US for their role in implementing national security law.

Lee also praised “one country, two systems,” and said he “will strive for a more caring and more inclusive Hong Kong full of vibrancy, hope and development potential.”

Officials and guests attend a flag-raising ceremony on Friday in Hong Kong's Golden Bauhinia Square, marking the 25th anniversary of the return of the former British colony under Chinese rule.
The events on Friday started with a flag-raising ceremony in Golden Bauhinia Square.Magnum Chan, Pool / AP

Unlike in 2017, when tens of thousands of protesters marched during Xi’s visit in an annual July 1 tradition dating back to the handover, the streets were quiet with dispersed citizens, some carrying multiple Chinese flags and red masks in patriotic fervor.

The League of Social Democrats, a pro-democracy group, said this week that it would refrain from protests on Friday after some of its volunteers were called to meet with national security police.

Security barriers blocked all roads near the convention center, where the inauguration took place, and police battled high winds as they tried to clear blockages on walkways.

Police officers randomly stopped and searched pedestrians taking photos of pedestrian bridges and asked them for press information. When asked if it was illegal to watch, one officer replied, “I don’t know.”

Ip said the concern that the national security law had eroded Hong Kongers’ rights and freedoms was “just a matter of perception”.

“Only people who may have been involved in illegal activities that undermine national security have grounds for concern,” she said. “The rest of the community, I think we’re very happy that law and order has been restored.”

Unlike past Hong Kong leaders who have come forward through the civil service, Lee was a career police officer, and is expected to take a hard line on security. He has said that one of his top priorities will be to pass local national security legislation known as Article 23.

“It appears that government restrictions on people’s free speech and political freedoms will be further strengthened,” said Eric Lai, the Hong Kong Law fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law. “And it also means that the city’s human rights protections and the city’s rule of law will be further eroded.”

Ip said the National Security Act was imposed because Hong Kong has failed to enact Article 23 legislation as required by the Basic Law, the mini-constitution since its handover in 1997.

The national security law “only pertains to people with real criminal intent to overthrow the existing regime or to break Hong Kong out of the country or to engage in local terrorist activity, or to cooperate with foreign forces to destroy China and Hong Kong.” harm,” she said. “So I think the vast majority have nothing to worry about.”

But activists, lawyers and others say the law leaves it unclear where the “red lines” lie, sparking self-censorship and an atmosphere of insecurity.

The crackdown has resulted in many activists, artists, academics, lawyers and others in Hong Kong moving abroad. Law, 28, said activist friends left behind struggle with depression and feelings of suffocation amid the changing political landscape, but are still trying to do what they can and proceed with caution.

He said it is important to remind the international community that Hong Kong’s story is not over.

“Protecting Hong Kong is protecting the front lines of democracy, the front lines of the fight against the rise of authoritarianism and authoritarian expansion,” he said. “I think this case needs to be remembered, and we definitely need to continue to pay attention to it.”

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