China's Xi to preside over muted Hong Kong handover anniversary

HONG KONG: Chinese leader Xi Jinping was set to preside on Friday (Jul 1) over tightly choreographed celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain, with once annual demonstrations silenced and a massive security presence in force.

Xi’s two-day visit, which will also see him inaugurate Hong Kong’s new government on Friday, is a chance for the Chinese Communist Party to showcase its power over the city after unleashing a harsh crackdown that has crushed the business hub’s democracy movement.

It is Xi’s first trip out of mainland China since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and his first to Hong Kong since massive protests overwhelmed the city in 2019.

“After the storms, Hong Kong has been reborn from the fire and emerged with robust vitality,” Xi said upon arriving by high-speed train on Thursday afternoon.

Friday also marks the halfway point of the 50-year governance model agreed by Britain and China under which the city would keep some autonomy and freedoms, known as One Country Two Systems.

The anniversary used to be a prime example of those freedoms in action.

For decades after the handover, in parallel to the official celebrations, every Jul 1 hundreds of thousands of residents would take part in a march to voice political and social grievances.

But that march, like all mass gatherings in Hong Kong, has been banned by police for the last two years, under a mixture of coronavirus restrictions and a security crackdown.

Critics say that crackdown, strengthened under a national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020, has betrayed the promise that Hong Kong would retain its way of life after the handover.

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We made a promise to the territory and its people and we intend to keep it, doing all we can to hold China to its commitments,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday.

In the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken lamented an “erosion of autonomy” in the city, saying: “We stand in solidarity with people in Hong Kong and reinforce their calls for their promised freedoms to be reinstated.”

But Xi insisted on Thursday that One Country Two Systems would guarantee “long-term stability and prosperity in Hong Kong”.