HONG KONG ( Associated Press) – China’s leader Xi Jinping celebrated the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return with a speech on Friday highlighting Beijing’s control of the former British colony under its vision of “one country, two systems” – against criticism that the political and civil liberties promised for the next quarter century were largely wiped out under Chinese rule.
Xi praised the city for overcoming “violent social unrest” – a reference to massive pro-democracy protests in 2019 followed by a Beijing-driven repression that quenched discord and shut down independent media, which shut down Hong Kong more closely aligned with stricter controls. under China’s ruling Communist Party.
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The shift shocked many in the city of 7.4 million people 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 allow Hong Kong to have its own government and legal system for 50 years.
In the ensuing years, Hong Kong activists rebelled against Chinese efforts to restrict freedoms and even demanded full democratic elections, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to march in the streets.
Under Xi, that setback was silenced. For years, the commemoration of the July 1st handover was marked by an official ceremony in the morning and a protest march in the afternoon. Now protesters have been silently immersed in what the Communist Party sees as restoring stability in the city.
Xi said Beijing had “extensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, and that Hong Kong should respect Chinese leadership, even if Beijing allowed regions such as Hong Kong and neighboring Macao to maintain their capitalist system and a degree of autonomy.
“After returning to the motherland, Hong Kong has overcome all kinds of challenges and is gradually moving forward,” Xi said. “Whether it was the international financial crisis, the coronavirus pandemic or violent social unrest, nothing has stopped Hong Kong’s progress.”
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His speech represents the culmination of what China scholar Jeff Wasserstrom described as a push and pull between two competing visions of “one country, two systems.”
Many in Hong Kong have “fought for a more robust understanding of the two systems, to have an idea that there is a very different lifestyle there,” says Wasserstrom, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Vigil: Hong Kong”. on the edge. ”
That view, at least for now, has lost ground for the narrower one of the Communist Party, which is primarily interested in maintaining 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 people in Hong Kong in recent years,” she said. “I just wanted to relax today and not surround myself in a negative atmosphere for too long.”
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Since the 2019 protests, authorities have used a comprehensive national security law to arrest numerous activists, media figures and democracy supporters. They introduced a more patriotic curriculum in schools and revised election laws to keep opposition politicians who are not considered patriotic enough out of the city’s legislature.
In his view, China’s Communist Party has restored stability in a city plagued by protests seen as a direct challenge to its rule. For Western democracies, Xi undermined the freedoms and way of life that distinguished the city from mainland China and turned it into a global financial and trade center.
U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement that China’s policies toward Hong Kong, including the National Security Act, “shook the institutions, rules and systems that formed the basis of international trust in Hong Kong.”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We have seen a steady erosion of political and civil rights since the enactment of the National Security Act on 30 June 2020. Authorities have stifled opposition, criminalized discord and expelled anyone who told the truth to may speak. ”
Xi warned that there would be no tolerance for foreign interference or traitors interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. He said “securing national sovereignty, security and development interests” was a top priority.
“No one in any country or region in the world will allow foreign countries or even traitors to seize powers and figures,” he said, adding that only by having patriots ruling Hong Kong can it ensure long-term stability.
He said that “one country, two systems” is still a good system that “needs to be maintained for a long time.”
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In the remote village of Tai O, where houses are built on stilts, fisherman Ng Koon-yau is doing well with Beijing in charge.
“Hong Kong is part of China, and I never thought about moving anywhere else,” said Ng, who came from China’s neighboring Guangdong province in the 1950s. “I hope China will make Hong Kong a better place where everyone can thrive.”
Xi also stressed the importance of caring for the youth of Hong Kong. Many of the protesters in pro-democracy movements in 2014 and 2019 were students, much disillusioned by not only the loss of promised political freedoms, but also an increasingly competitive labor market and rising housing costs.
“It is necessary to help the majority of young people 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 hit in January 2020. He last visited Hong Kong in 2017 for the 20th anniversary of the handover.
Thousands of guests had to take coronavirus tests daily and check in at quarantine hotels before attending events with Xi.
Xi observed at the swearing-in of Hong Kong’s new leader John Lee, a former security chief who oversaw the suppression of dissent.
“The next five years will be a crucial time for Hong Kong to progress from government to prosperity,” Lee said.
He has previously indicated plans to go through a long-standing unfulfilled requirement for the city to enact its own laws to protect the Chinese government from acts that threaten national security. An earlier initiative was abandoned after major protests in 2003.
Amnesty International has warned that Lee’s plans for laws governing state secrets and cyber security are likely to reflect similar laws in China.
“The extremely broad definition of such laws facilitates arbitrary application, a fact that creates even more uncertainty and fear for people in Hong Kong,” said the group’s Asia-Pacific regional director, Erwin van der Borght.
At a morning flag-raising ceremony – attended by Lee and his predecessor Carrie Lam, but not Xi – police officers carrying the Chinese and Hong Kong flags marched to Golden Bauhinia Square in a Chinese “goose-walking” style, wearing a British-style march replaced. Guests stood at attention while 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.