HONG KONG – President Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong on Thursday to mark 20 years since its return to China by Britain, with activists under arrest as authorities sought to avoid embarrassment during anniversary celebrations.
A huge security operation shut down large parts of the normally throbbing city, with thousands of police deployed to keep away demonstrators angry at Beijing’s tightening grip on the freedoms of nearly eight million people.
The lockdown reflects Beijing’s concern that nothing should be allowed to taint the high-profile visit, ahead of a key Communist Party congress later this year which is expected to cement Xi’s position as the most powerful Chinese leader in a generation.
More than 20 activists – including Joshua Wong and young legislator Nathan Law – remained in custody after being arrested for causing a “public nuisance” during a Wednesday night protest.
The three-day visit is Xi’s first since becoming leader in 2013, and comes three years after huge pro-democracy protests crippled the semi-autonomous city for months as “Umbrella Movement” campaigners camped out on thoroughfares.
Xi’s carefully choreographed trip began with his arrival at Chek Lap Kok airport on an Air China plane, where he emerged holding hands with his wife, singer Peng Liyuan, to be welcomed by a marching band and flag-waving children.
A smiling Xi commented on the hot weather and thanked people for waiting in the blazing sun.
“After nine years I am once again stepping on Hong Kong soil. I feel very happy. Hong Kong has always had a place in my heart,” he said in a brief speech on the tarmac.
He added that China would support Hong Kong’s development and improve people’s livelihoods “as it always has” but suggested he felt the city could be doing better by saying he “sincerely wishes Hong Kong can once again achieve splendour”.
Xi said he wanted to ensure Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” set-up, which is enshrined in the handover deal and gives it rights unseen on the mainland, “is on a stable, longlasting path”.
Pro-democracy campaigners say the system is being eroded and liberties are being squeezed as Beijing interferes in a range of areas, from politics to education and media.
Xi’s motorcade whizzed him to a hotel near the convention centre on Hong Kong island’s famed waterfront, which will be the scene of many of the celebratory events over the coming 48 hours.
The area around the convention centre has been cordoned off by giant water-filled barricades and police have said they are taking “counter terrorism security measures” to ensure Xi’s safety.
Animosity towards Beijing has grown in recent years, particularly among young people.
The failure of mass rallies in 2014 to win democratic reform has sparked a new wave of “localist” activists, keen to emphasise Hong Kong’s own identity, with some calling for a full split from the mainland.
But although young activists have promised to continue protesting during Xi’s visit, other residents said they would celebrate his trip.
Stages were set up in squares opposite the convention centre for music and dancing with excited crowds gathering ahead of his arrival.
“It should be an honour to get the number one person in China to come to a very small city,” said one 38-year-old man at the gathering who gave his name as Mr Fan and added that things were better than under British rule.
Xi’s visit will culminate in the inauguration of new city leader Carrie Lam, who was appointed by a pro-China committee and is already being cast as a Beijing stooge by critics.
She has promised to heal divisions but has already alarmed critics by saying children should be instilled with Chinese identity from a young age and suggesting that independence activists could face punishment under the law.
Lam has said she wants to focus on livelihood issues instead of politics, in a city where the wealth gap is at a record high and many cannot afford decent housing, fuelling tensions.