HONG KONG — Chinese leader Xi Jinping marked the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return with a speech Friday that emphasized Beijing’s control of the former British colony under its “one country, two systems” vision — and refuted criticisms that political and civil liberties promised by the next quarter-century have been largely obliterated 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 that has quelled dissent and shut down independent media, pushing Hong Kong closer aligned with tighter controls under the ruling Communist Party of China.
The shift shocked many in the city of 7.4 million that Britain returned to China in 1997, after running it as a colony for more than a century. As part of the agreement, China agreed to give Hong Kong its own government and legal system for 50 years.
In the following years, Hong Kong activists pushed back on Chinese efforts to curtail freedoms and even demanded fully democratic elections, which left hundreds of thousands of people on the streets.
Under Xi, that pushback has been silenced. For many years, the anniversary of the transfer on July 1 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 hailed as restoring stability to the city.
Xi said Beijing has “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, and that Hong Kong must respect Chinese leadership, even as Beijing allows regions like Hong Kong and neighboring Macau to maintain their capitalist system and some degree of autonomy.
“After returning to the motherland, Hong Kong has overcome all kinds of challenges and made steady progress,” Xi said. “Whether it was the international financial crisis, the coronavirus pandemic or violent social unrest, nothing has stopped Hong Kong’s progress.”
His speech was the culmination of what Chinese 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 better understanding of the two systems, to have a sense that there is 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 has lost, at least for now, the narrower Communist Party, which is primarily interested in preserving the economic benefits of Hong Kong’s capitalist system, he said.
Hong Kong resident Grace Chan saw little reason to celebrate on Friday. “It has been very difficult for the people of Hong Kong in recent years,” she said. “I just wanted to relax today and not surround myself in a negative atmosphere for too long.”
Since the 2019 protests, authorities have used a sweeping national security law to arrest dozens of activists, media figures and democracy supporters. They introduced a more patriotic curriculum in schools and revised electoral laws to keep opposition politicians deemed not patriotic enough out of the city’s legislature.
She says the Chinese Communist Party has restored stability in a city ravaged by demonstrations seen as a direct challenge to its rule. For Western democracies, Xi has undermined the freedoms and way of life that distinguished the city from mainland China and made it a global financial and trade center.
U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement that China’s policy toward Hong Kong, including its national security law, “degraded the institutions, rules and systems that underpin international trust in Hong Kong.” Kong, have been shocked”.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We have seen a steady erosion of political and civil rights since the imposition of the National Security Act on June 30, 2020. Authorities have suppressed the opposition, criminalized dissent and expelled anyone who told the truth. can bring power. †
Xi warned there would be no tolerance for foreign interference or traitors meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs. He said that “protecting national sovereignty, security and development interests” is the top priority.
“No one in any country or region in the world will allow foreign countries or even insidious forces and figures to seize power,” he said, adding that only by having patriots running Hong Kong can it guarantee long-term stability .
He said that “one country, two systems” was still a good system that “must be maintained for a long time.”
In the remote village of Tai O, where houses are built on stilts, fisherman Ng Koon-yau is happy that Beijing is in charge.
“Hong Kong is part of China and I never thought of going anywhere else,” said Ng, who came from neighboring China’s Guangdong province in the 1950s. “I hope that China will make Hong Kong a better place where everyone can thrive.”
Xi also stressed the importance of caring for Hong Kong’s youth. Many of the protesters in pro-democracy movements in 2014 and 2019 were students, many disillusioned not only with the loss of promised political freedoms, but also with an increasingly competitive job market and rising housing costs.
“It is necessary to help the majority of young people to solve the problems they face in their studies, employment and in entrepreneurship and property ownership,” he said. “More opportunities need to be 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 broke out in January 2020. He had last visited Hong Kong in 2017 for the 20th anniversary of the transfer.
Thousands of guests were required to take daily coronavirus tests and check into quarantine hotels prior to participating in events with Xi.
Xi performed at the swearing-in ceremony of Hong Kong’s new leader, John Lee, a former security chief who oversaw the crackdown on dissent.
“The next five years will be a crucial time for Hong Kong to move from governance to prosperity,” Lee said.
He has previously indicated that he plans to press ahead with a long-unfulfilled demand for the city to enact its own laws to protect the Chinese government from acts that threaten national security. An earlier initiative was halted in 2003 after major protests.
Amnesty International warned that Lee’s plans for state secrets and cybersecurity laws are likely to mirror similar laws in China.
“The extremely broad definition of such laws facilitates arbitrary enforcement, a fact that creates even more uncertainty and fear for people in Hong Kong,” said Erwin van der Borght, regional director of the Asia-Pacific group.
At a morning flag ceremony — attended by Lee and his predecessor Carrie Lam but not Xi — police officers carrying the Chinese and Hong Kong flags marched into Golden Bauhinia Square in a Chinese “goose step” style, replacing a British-style march. Guests stood at attention as the Chinese national anthem was played.
Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu in Beijing and news assistant Karmen Li in Hong Kong contributed to this report.