Hong Kong (CNN) Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Friday claimed “true democracy” began in Hong Kong 25 years ago when China assumed control, as he marked a symbolic anniversary for the city transformed by his political crackdown.
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“After its return to the motherland, Hong Kong compatriots became masters of their own affairs, Hong Kong people administered Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy, and that was the beginning of true democracy in Hong Kong,” Xi said in a keynote address to Hong Kong officials to mark the 25th anniversary of the handover.
The former British colony is now at the halfway point in the 50-year promise of “a high degree of autonomy,” given by Beijing under a framework known as “one country, two systems.”
But critics, including Western governments, have accused Beijing of breaching those promises in recent years as it tightened its grip on Hong Kong.
In 2020, a year after anti-government protests had rocked Hong Kong, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the once freewheeling city. Two years later, no opposition lawmakers remain in the Hong Kong legislature, while nearly all of its leading pro-democracy figures, including activists and politicians, have either been forced into exile or imprisoned — with dozens of them behind bars.
Xi’s two-day visit was the first time he had set foot in the city since unleashing the sweeping crackdown.
In his speech, Xi struck a triumphant tone, declaring that Hong Kong had “put an end to chaos and violence,” and was ready to “break new ground and take a new leap forward” in the next five years.
He also stressed that Hong Kong must be governed by “patriots” — namely those loyal to the ruling Communist Party.
“It is a universal rule in the world that political power must be in the hands of patriots. No country or region in the world will allow unpatriotic or even traitorous or treasonous forces and figures to seize power,” Xi said.
At the ceremony, Xi swore in John Lee, a former policeman turned security chief, as Hong Kong’s new leader, replacing outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Lee, who became the face of the national security law after overseeing the arrests of dozens of activists and raids on newsrooms, laid out his vision for a “new chapter for Hong Kong.” He claimed the city is just as free and advanced as it has always been — and vowed to continue its development, with a focus on greater integration with mainland China.
Earlier in the morning, Lee and hundreds of Hong Kong officials attended a flag-raising ceremony under dark skies next to the city’s Victoria Harbor, which kick-started the day of ceremonies.
The pomp and circumstance was largely limited to the Convention and Exhibition Centre on the harbor front. On the streets, the mood was much more muted, due to Covid-19 restrictions, a closing typhoon and heightened security.
Police presence was heavily visible throughout Friday morning, as officers in groups of four patrolled footbridges, sidewalks and subway stations and exits at the commercial districts of Admiralty and Wan Chai.
“There’s really nothing to celebrate. The whole ceremony is highly guarded and the public isn’t invited anyway, just like how (the government) doesn’t want ordinary people to join political discussions anymore,” said Tse, a photography enthusiast in his 20s who came to the waterfront to watch the police vessels and helicopters.
In Hong Kong, July 1 was traditionally marked by large-scale pro-democracy marches that thronged its busy main streets. But no protests were seen this year. Most of the city’s pro-democracy groups have disbanded following the national security law. And of the organizations that remain, none applied for permits to stage peaceful protests during Xi’s trip, according to police.
The few public gatherings that took place on Friday were organized by Beijing’s supporters.
In the city’s Tsim Sha Tsui district, just across the water from where the formal handover anniversary ceremonies were held, a group of about 30 people gathered to hold up the Chinese national flag and a patriotic banner.
Martin Chan, who was accompanied by his wife and two children, was among the group braving the stormy weather to take advantage of the public holiday.
Chan said his children lived through the 2019 anti-government protests but were still too young to understand why they happened.
“What’s important is that Hong Kong is stable and safe now,” he said. “We need to respect each other, despite any differences, and also respect mainland China.”
For pro-democracy politicians and activists who have fled Hong Kong, the anniversary is a poignant event to watch from afar.
Former lawmaker Ted Hui, who left the city for Australia while on bail for what he says are politically motivated charges, said in a Facebook post Friday that the anger in his heart “was never extinguished.”
“I feel so strongly about Hong Kong as if I’ve never left: I can’t let go of the place I love, and I can’t let go of my comrades in prison,” he wrote.
“Hong Kong currently has more than 1,000 political prisoners, in addition to a justice system destroyed by the evil national security law, as well as the total annihilation of free press and democratic society,” Hui said.
Another former lawmaker Nathan Law, who fled to the United Kingdom in 2020, said the Hong Kong he once knew had become unrecognizable.
“We exist in struggles and in between the cracks: we left to move towards a promised and ideal Hong Kong. After becoming estranged, we look back at the city that retains its glamorous facade, but this ‘new Hong Kong’ has lost its resonances, we are still yearning to go back [to our old Hong Kong],” the 28-year-old said in a Facebook post Thursday.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday the United Kingdom is doing “all it can” to hold China to its commitments over “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong.
“But on the 25th anniversary of the handover, we simply cannot avoid the fact that for some time now, Beijing has been failing to comply with its obligations. It’s a state of affairs that threatens both the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers and the continued progress and prosperity of their home,” Johnson said in a video statement.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized the “dismantling” of freedoms in Hong Kong.
“This date was envisioned as the halfway point of 50 years of promised autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework. Yet it is now evident that Hong Kong and Beijing authorities no longer view democratic participation, fundamental freedoms, and an independent media as part of this vision,” he said.