HONG KONG — Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday declared that Hong Kong had “risen from the ashes” as he ventured outside mainland China for the first time since the start of the pandemic to attend the 25th anniversary of the territory’s handover from British to Chinese rule.
In an apparent reference to protests in recent years against Beijing’s encroachment, eventually crushed by a strict national security law, Xi said in a brief speech that after “rain and storm, Hong Kong has risen from the ashes.”
For Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, who is expected to take a precedent-breaking third term later this year, the proceedings are a chance to cement personal power over the Chinese Communist Party by declaring the nation has grown stronger and more united under his rule.
But for many in Hong Kong, the halfway point of a 50-year period where the city was guaranteed a “high degree of autonomy” under a mechanism known as “one country, two systems” is a time to mourn the erosion of freedoms and dashed hopes of a more democratic future.
“After the uprising and protests of 2019 and 2020, the Beijing government wants to portray that everything is under control — the opposition and rebellious elements have been wiped out,” said Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s a victory lap, and Xi Jinping will try portray that he is the one who achieved this so-called ‘second return’ of Hong Kong.”
Crushing the pro-democracy protests frayed Beijing’s relationship with the city’s youth and with many Western governments. But for the Chinese Communist Party, which prizes its political control and the nation’s territorial integrity more than anything else, breaking through decades of inaction and pushback to pass national security legislation for Hong Kong is an important achievement.
Chinese scholars have started to speak of the “second return” of Hong Kong. Zheng Yongnian, an influential political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told state media that the early years of post-1997 Chinese rule were “sovereignty without the power to govern.” But Xi has changed that.
The national security law, Zheng said, was a good start but only the beginning of the “reconstruction” that Hong Kong’s political system must undergo as it “moves from radical democracy toward a form of democracy more suitable to Hong Kong’s culture and class and social structure.”
Foremost on that agenda for incoming Chief Executive John Lee, the policy chief who oversaw the crackdown on protests, will be to fulfill Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini constitution, which requires it to enact laws to prohibit treason, secession, sedition and subversion. Such legislation was shelved in 2003 after mass protests.
But Xi’s ambitions go beyond policing and legal overhauls to sweeping changes in education and society designed to build support for CCP rule.
Acceptance of a Beijing-designed future may be hardest among the generation born around the handover, who expected greater democratic freedoms and were introduced to local politics through protests against impositions from Beijing.
“When I was young, I didn’t know what universal suffrage was but later on after I experienced the Umbrella Revolution then I changed my mind,” said Coco Au, 25, a law postgraduate student, referring to 2014 protests targeting changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system that allowed Beijing to prescreen political candidates.
Many born around 1997 feel betrayed. Jeff Yau, 25, grew up with a sense that the handover had been a happy event, but more recently has come to fear for the city’s future. “I feel a bit suffocated and I feel like Hong Kong is less open than Western countries,” he said.
Despite the jubilant tone in Chinese state media ahead of Friday’s ceremonies, there are signs that Xi remains uneasy about Beijing’s grip in Hong Kong. Local media, citing anonymous government sources, have reported that Xi will not stay the night in the city and will instead travel back across the mainland border to Shenzhen after a dinner with outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam, returning to Hong Kong on Friday morning for the appointment ceremony of Lee, the former police chief who will take her place.
Much of Hong Kong has been shut down to ensure the visit runs smoothly. Tall, water-filled barricades line the streets near the exhibition center where celebrations will be held. The legislative council canceled its weekly meeting so lawmakers could quarantine and meet strict coronavirus restrictions for the ceremonies. Police banned drones across Hong Kong during the visit.
At least 10 journalists from local and foreign media were barred from covering proceedings, according to the South China Morning Post. The League of Social Democrats, a pro-democracy political organization, on Tuesday said it would not protest on July 1 after national security police summoned its volunteers. “The situation is very difficult, please understand,” the group said in a statement to supporters.
For Hong Kong’s older generation, 1997 was also a profoundly uncertain time. Claudia Tang, 59, left the city for Australia at the time expecting to emigrate but later returned. She is now broadly optimistic about the future of Hong Kong, despite Beijing’s dominance.
“I feel like national education is a good thing. Many young people do not understand what ‘one country, two systems’ means,” she said.
That confusion may be in part because China’s explanations have shifted over time. Gone are former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s pithy pre-1997 promises that Hong Kong’s “horses will still be raced and dances will be danced” after the handover. Replacing them are Xi’s views, as stated at the 20th handover anniversary, that “one country” forms the deep roots of a system of governance “advanced, first and foremost, to realize and uphold national unity.”
Creating the “one country, two systems” formula that underpinned the handover of Hong Kong is considered one of the defining achievements of Deng’s leadership. Even today, Chinese state media regularly features videos of Deng wagging his finger at then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while declaring that the sovereignty of Hong Kong was not up for debate.
Many questions about the future of Hong Kong left unanswered by Deng have been resoundingly answered by Xi, often by imposing the CCP’s interpretations of history on the territory. Recently, Hong Kong officials revised secondary school textbooks to teach the party position that the territory was never actually a British colony; it was only ever illegally occupied.
At an event on Monday, Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, argued that there was little the United Kingdom could have done in the lead-up to 1997 to avoid the recent repressive turn in Hong Kong.
Ken Lam, 50, who works in logistics, says that even in 1997, he guessed greater repression was coming but was unable to leave at the time and has become resigned to the city’s fate. “I now have the ability to leave but a part of me also wants to stay and observe how much worse can Hong Kong become. After all, this place is where I grew up,” he said.
Shepherd reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.