Xi’s Hong Kong visit marks its new era under party control

Even before he set foot in Hong Kong, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s intentions were clear: he wanted to usher in the city’s next chapter under the tight grip of Communist Party rule.

On his first trip outside the mainland since the pandemic began, Xi arrived in Hong Kong on Thursday afternoon to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his handover from Britain and attend the swearing-in ceremony of new Chief Executive John Lee on Friday. Xi’s presence came as a vote of confidence in the city’s stability after years of COVID-19, political protests and a subsequent crackdown on dissent.

It was also a moment for Xi to further cement his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, months before he is expected to break with post-Mao-era norms and secure a third term as president. Many believe that he will not stop there.

As Xi and his wife disembarked the bullet train at Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Railway Station, they were greeted by officials and masked schoolchildren, who chanted warm greetings and waved flowers and Chinese and Hong Kong flags.

As the couple walked the winding red carpet to the tune of a marching band, other attendees held up long red banners welcoming their arrival and swayed under lion dance costumes. Anniversary decorations around the station proclaimed: “A new era. Stability. Prosperity. Opportunity.”

“The symbolism says a lot,” said Minxin Pei, government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “This is an opportunity to show that he’s in charge.”

The Chinese leader has returned to a very different Hong Kong than when he was last in the city five years ago. In 2019, the city was rocked by widespread protests against a law that would expand Beijing’s jurisdiction in the former British colony. Then COVID-19 broke out, restricting travel and gatherings. As controversial clashes between police and protesters subsided, Beijing introduced a national security law that would see hundreds of protesters, journalists, politicians and detainees held while others fled abroad.

The measures have effectively accelerated Hong Kong’s 50-year transition to full Chinese rule, a period during which the city should maintain a high degree of autonomy and democratic freedom under the “one country, two systems” model articulated by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping . In a brief speech upon arrival, Xi declared Hong Kong to be proof of the principle’s success.

“Hong Kong has withstood rigorous test after rigorous test, defying every risk and challenge,” he said. “After this experience, Hong Kong rises from the ashes and shows strength and vitality. … As long as we steadfastly adhere to ‘one country, two systems’, Hong Kong will certainly have an even brighter future.”

But critics both inside and outside the city argue the opposite, saying “one country, two systems” has essentially been jettisoned by Beijing, despite its signed deal with Britain.

“Hong Kong is practically just a Chinese city now,” Pei said.

This year is of extreme political significance for Xi, who is expected to be granted another term as president by China’s National Party Congress in the fall. By crushing the Hong Kong unrest and installing a firmly pro-Beijing regime, he has made progress on one of his key priorities: reunifying “motherland” China and what it considers its own.

That includes Taiwan, another target of Deng’s split-rule model. Xi has been more vocal in calling for reunification with the self-governing island, though his ruling political party, along with a majority of Taiwanese citizens, opposes unification and aggression on the mainland, fueling increased cross-strait tensions and concerns that Beijing may be trying to do achieve his goal militarily.

“Beijing’s presence in Hong Kong will only reinforce these views in Taiwan,” said Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “Beijing can make promises, like allowing Hong Kong its own system and democracy, but is ultimately willing to take them back.”

Silhouette of people under Chinese and Hong Kong flags

A man tours an exhibition marking the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese control.

(Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

The US and Britain have criticized China’s crackdown on democracy, freedom of expression and civil liberties in Hong Kong under the National Security Law, allegations the current Hong Kong government has dismissed as “baseless” and foreign interference in internal affairs. Washington has sanctioned dozens of Hong Kong officials, including new chief executive Lee and his predecessor Carrie Lam.

Troubled relations between China and western democracies have suffered further from China’s implicit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At a NATO summit in Madrid, the alliance will change its strategic approach to address China for the first time, calling Beijing a “strategic challenge” and raising concerns about its political and economic ambitions and strategies.

Despite Xi’s declaration of confidence in Hong Kong’s future, the extreme measures taken for his visit point to lingering fears of further political or pandemic disruption.

Two senior Hong Kong officials tested positive for the coronavirus in the days before Xi’s arrival, raising concerns about infection risks. Thousands of residents are in quarantine to attend the week’s celebrations, according to the South China Morning Post.

The authorities also leave little to chance when it comes to possible demonstrations by political opposition. According to local media, the city has deployed thousands of police officers to the events, banned the use of drones and made several arrests over alleged sedition.

While Chinese state media confirmed Xi’s planned visit this week, further details, even for those attending, were scarce under the tightly controlled and coordinated agenda. Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club said this week that at least 10 journalists from local and foreign media were barred from covering the events for “security reasons,” while some media outlets were unable to apply for accreditation at all.

Despite all precautionary measures, Xi is likely to commute back to Shenzhen on the mainland across from Hong Kong to stay there on Thursday evening before returning to Hong Kong on Friday, the South China Morning Post reported.

“It shows that officials are not entirely confident that everything is under control in Hong Kong,” said Ho-Fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University.

Uniformed students with Chinese flag

Uniformed students attend a Chinese flag-raising ceremony in Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China.

(Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

Arrest campaigns, a purge of “unpatriotic” politicians and the dismantling of independent media have all but eradicated substantial opposition to Hong Kong’s new leadership. However, Lee and Xi must continue to grapple with the city’s economic future, which has been hit hard by China’s strict zero-COVID protocols.

At the same time, amid political turmoil and the pandemic, residents and businesses have begun to leave the country, sparking concerns about a brain drain and threatening Hong Kong’s status as a major international business and financial hub.

In a poll conducted last year by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 57.5% of respondents aged 15 to 30 said they wanted to leave the city, up from 46.8% in 2018, according to the American Chamber of Commerce Commerce in Hong Kong in its latest annual survey announced that due to pandemic restrictions, 26% of businesses were more likely to exit, while 44% of respondents said they were personally monitoring exits.

Xi said Hong Kong’s challenges could be overcome with the strong support of the mainland. He recently stressed the importance of Hong Kong’s steady development and commitment to young people, as well as the territory’s economic and industrial integration with the mainland through neighboring Guangdong Province.

“The big challenge now will be to revive the economy,” Hung said. “They want to show they have the determination to do so, but there’s no easy way to guarantee the world that Hong Kong is still good for business.”

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-06-30/china-xi-hong-kong-visit-new-era-communist-control Xi’s Hong Kong visit marks its new era under party control

Alley Einstein

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