Xi defends his vision for Hong Kong on the 25th anniversary of his return

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HONG KONG — Chinese leader Xi Jinping marked the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return with a speech on Friday that highlighted Beijing’s control over the former British colony as part of his « one country, two systems » vision – countering the criticisms that political and civic liberties promised for the next quarter century were largely erased under Chinese rule.

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Xi praised the city for overcoming « violent social unrest » – a reference to massive pro-democracy protests in 2019 that were followed by a Beijing-led crackdown that stifled dissent and shut down independent media, aligning Hong Kong more closely on tighter controls under China’s ruling Communist Party.

The change shocked many in the city of 7.4 million that Britain returned to China in 1997, after ruling it as a colony for more than a century. As part of the deal, China agreed to allow Hong Kong to have its own government and legal system for 50 years.

In the years since, Hong Kong activists have pushed back against Chinese efforts to curtail freedoms and even demanded fully democratic elections, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to marches in the streets.

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Under Xi, this pushback has been silenced. For years, the anniversary of the July 1 handover has been 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 hails as the return of stability to the city.

Xi said Beijing has « comprehensive jurisdiction » over Hong Kong and that Hong Kong should respect Chinese leadership even if Beijing allows regions like Hong Kong and neighboring Macau to maintain their capitalist system and a degree of autonomy.

« After returning to the motherland, Hong Kong overcame all kinds of challenges and made steady progress, » Xi said. « Whether it’s the international financial crisis, the coronavirus pandemic or violent social unrest, nothing has stopped Hong Kong’s progress. »

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His speech represented the culmination of what Chinese scholar Jeff Wasserstrom described as a back-and-forth between two competing visions of « one country, two systems ».

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Many in Hong Kong « have fought for a more solid understanding of the two systems, to get a sense that there’s a very different way of life there, » said 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 out to the narrower one of the Communist Party, which is primarily interested in maintaining the economic advantages of Hong Kong’s capitalist system, he said.

Hong Kong resident Grace Chan saw no reason to celebrate on Friday. « It’s been very difficult for Hong Kong people in recent years, » she said. « I just wanted to relax today and not surround myself with a negative atmosphere for too long. »

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Since the 2019 protests, authorities have used a sweeping national security law to arrest dozens of activists, media figures and pro-democracy supporters. They introduced a more patriotic curriculum in schools and revamped election laws to keep opposition politicians who were not deemed patriotic enough out of the city legislature.

In his view, the Chinese Communist Party has restored stability to a city that has been ravaged by protests seen as a direct challenge to its rule. For Western democracies, Xi has undermined the freedoms and way of life that set the city apart from mainland China and turned it into a global hub of finance and trade.

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U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement that China’s policies toward Hong Kong, including the National Security Law, have « shaken institutions , rules and systems that had been the basis of international trust in Hong Kong ».

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UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We have seen a steady erosion of political and civil rights since the National Security Act was imposed on June 30, 2020. Authorities have stifled opposition, criminalized dissent and driven out anyone who can speak truth to power. .”

Xi warned that there would be no tolerance for foreign interference or interference by traitors in Hong Kong affairs. He said « safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests » is of the highest priority.

« No one in any country or region of the world will allow foreign countries or even treacherous forces and personalities to take power, » he said, adding that only by having patriots ruling Hong Kong that he can ensure long-term stability.

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He said « 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 agrees with Beijing.

« Hong Kong is part of China, and I never thought of moving anywhere else, » said Ng, who came from neighboring China’s Guangdong province in the 1950s. 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 the pro-democracy movements in 2014 and 2019 were students, many of whom were disappointed not only by the loss of promised political freedoms, but also by an increasingly competitive job market and rising housing prices.

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« There is a need to help the majority of young people to solve the difficulties they face in their studies, employment, entrepreneurship and property, » he said. « There needs to be more opportunities 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 took hold in January 2020. He last visited Hong Kong in 2017 for the 20th anniversary of the handover.

Thousands of guests had to take daily coronavirus tests and check into quarantine hotels before attending events with Xi.

Xi officiated at the swearing-in of Hong Kong’s new leader, John Lee, a former security chief who oversaw a crackdown on dissent.

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« The next five years will be a crucial time for Hong Kong to move from governance to prosperity, » Lee said.

He has previously signaled his intention to follow through on a long unmet demand for the city to enact its own laws to protect the Chinese government from acts that threaten national security. An earlier initiative was scrapped after large protests in 2003.

Amnesty International has warned that Lee’s plans for laws governing state secrets and cybersecurity will likely mirror similar laws in China.

« The extremely broad definition of these laws facilitates arbitrary application, a fact that creates even more uncertainty and fear for the people of Hong Kong, » said the group’s Asia-Pacific regional director, Erwin van der Borght.

In an early 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 through Golden Bauhinia Square in Chinese-style “stepping. ‘goose’, replacing a British style step. . Guests stood to attention as the Chinese national anthem was played.

Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu in Beijing and press aide Karmen Li in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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