President Xi Jinping sought to reassure a divided Hong Kong of China’s continued support for the former British colony, as pro-democracy protesters struggled to be heard behind road blocks and police lines.
The president, who began a three-day visit to mark 20 years of Chinese rule Thursday, said that Beijing considered the “one country, two systems” framework that underpins Hong Kong’s autonomy a success. At brief and carefully managed public events, he offered warm words to a city that has often in recent years convulsed in protest against the government.
“Hong Kong has always been in my heart,” Xi, the first president to visit the city since 2012, told reporters moments after arriving. “The central government will support Hong Kong’s development as ever.”
The trip gives Xi a chance to confront head on the debates that have vexed Hong Kong since long before the handover. His early remarks met expectations that he would emphasize the benefits of closer ties, particularly for a younger generation that identifies less with China, while warning Hong Kong against challenging Beijing’s authority.
At one event later on Thursday, he praised the city’s outgoing chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, for “effectively cracking down” on a small, but vocal independence movement that became a political force during his term.
“Hong Kong responses to Xi’s message will be diverse,” said Tim Summers, a senior consulting fellow for Chatham House, based in the city. “Some see Beijing as the source of all Hong Kong’s problems and will not be swayed whatever Xi says. If anything, the center of gravity of Hong Kong politics has continued to drift away from Beijing, not towards it.”
How Chinese Rule Has Changed Hong Kong: Q&A
Xi was unlikely to meet many of his critics face-to-face. More than one-third of Hong Kong’s 29,000-member police force was being deployed around the clock to make sure protesters come nowhere near the president.
While addressing reporters at Hong Kong’s airport, he didn’t acknowledge a shouted question about the fate of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who authorities recently transferred to a hospital for cancer treatment.
“Whatever his promises are, Xi Jinping is unable to see the real reality of Hong Kong,” said Au Nok-hin, convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, which was organizing a Friday evening rally near the handover event venues. “Many people here are worried about our democratic systems and losing confidence in the future of our city.”
Another group held a candlelight vigil Thursday outside Hong Kong’s highest court, a symbol of the city’s judicial independence. On Wednesday, police arrested more than two dozen demonstrators — including Joshua Wong, a key leader of the 2014 Occupy Central protests — for draping a black banner over a statue commemorating the handover.
When the U.K. returned Hong Kong in 1997, Beijing agreed to give it a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. Recent incidents, including the abduction of local booksellers who sold works critical of the Communist Party, have stoked fears that China’s authoritarian regime would steadily erode Hong Kong’s free speech, independent courts and democratic institutions.
“The Chinese Communist Party in Beijing has gradually been exercising a tighter and tighter grip on Hong Kong’s windpipe, and that’s had an effect on the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of speech and so on,” Chris Patten, who presided over the 1997 handover as Hong Kong’s last governor, told Bloomberg TV. “The international community — and Britain in particular — hasn’t made the sort of fuss it should have done.”
Xi, who hasn’t visited Hong Kong since a 2008 trip as vice president, has a packed itinerary that includes a review of the People’s Liberation Army garrison on Friday. He will give a speech marking the handover anniversary and attend the swearing-in of Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam, who won a leadership vote in March with Beijing’s support.
Xi wasn’t expected to make substantial remarks before the Saturday speech. On his first day in town, he had meetings with local officials, visited a cultural district and attended a banquet hosted by the unpopular Leung, who leaves office Friday after deciding not to seek a second term.
“These past five years have not been easy at all,” Xi told Leung earlier. Still, the president credited Leung, who has been appointed to a leadership post on China’s top political advisory body, with “safeguarding national security.”