To watch the official coverage of Xi Jinping’s visit to Hong Kong, you would think he had been greeted by adoring citizens everywhere he went. From the moment his high-speed train pulled into the West Kowloon station in the city on 30 June, crowds of schoolchildren cheered and waved flowers, along with Chinese and Hong Kong flags. “Welcome, welcome,” they chanted in unison. “We warmly welcome you!”
As the Chinese leader strolled along the red carpet in front of the cameras, occasionally waving to his apparently awestruck fans, a brass band played and a traditional lion dance troupe leaped and swayed in front of him. It was the first time he had left the Chinese mainland since the start of the pandemic, more than two years earlier, and the first time he had set foot in Hong Kong in five years. But throughout those years, he said in his speech, “I never stopped caring about and missing Hong Kong. My heart, the central government’s heart, is with the people of Hong Kong.”
Officially, he was there to mark the 25th anniversary of the handover from British to Chinese rule on 1 July 1997. Beijing had promised at the time that Hong Kong’s freedoms would be protected for the next 50 years under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”. But instead, those freedoms have been stripped away and Hong Kong’s once-thriving civil society has been crushed. As Xi toured the city, basking in the adulation of the carefully vetted crowds, and holding meetings with the Beijing loyalists who now run the territory (one man clapped and shouted, “Thank you for your hard work, Chairman Xi,” when he entered the room), the visit felt more like a victory lap. It was a demonstration of how comprehensively Hong Kong has been brought under the central government’s control.
Xi attempted to frame that intervention, and the suffocating security apparatus he has imposed, as a necessary act. “Hong Kong has withstood one severe challenge after another, and overcome one hazard after another,” he said in his 30 June speech, deliberately mischaracterising the pro-democracy protests in recent years. “[But] after the storm, Hong Kong has been reborn from the ashes, showing flourishing vitality.” There are many Hong Kongers who would dispute that characterisation. Instead, they would argue, it is the nascent police state that is flourishing. Far from being reborn from the ashes, their beloved city’s unique identity has been burned to the ground.
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“For Hong Kong people, it’s not a day to celebrate,” I was told by the young pro-democracy activist Nathan Law. I had first met him in Hong Kong in 2017, the last time Xi visited, during the events that marked the 20th anniversary of the handover. Back then, Beijing was already ramping up its control, but Law and fellow student leaders such as Joshua Wong could still lead large protests through the streets. That day, they wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words of Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
But now, Wong is behind bars, having already been convicted of “unauthorised assembly” and is awaiting trial under the new national security law that was introduced in 2020 – those deemed guilty of subversion, secession or collusion with foreign forces face sentences of up to life imprisonment. Law fled Hong Kong for London, where he has been granted political asylum. “Beijing has not delivered on its promises of democracy, freedom and autonomy,” he told me, when I asked him for his response to Xi’s latest visit. “We [have] lost our political diversity and free expression in the past 25 years. It’s a tragedy.”
The UK and Canada announced visa programmes for Hong Kong residents after the national security law was introduced, with more than 100,000 people applying to move to Britain within the first 12 months. The Home Office estimates that more than 300,000 Hong Kongers who are eligible for British National Overseas (BNO) status may choose to relocate under the scheme, which includes a pathway to UK citizenship, within five years.
That quiet exodus will not be mentioned in the glowing reports about the anniversary celebrations on the Chinese state television news. Instead, viewers will see Xi visiting a science park, enjoying a banquet with local officials, and swearing in Hong Kong’s new leader (known as the chief executive) John Lee, the former security chief who oversaw the police crackdown on protesters in 2019.
In this parallel reality, helicopters flew over the city trailing the Chinese and Hong Kong flags as Xi completed his visit with a grand ceremony and speech on 1 July, in which he offered his “congratulations to all” on the 25th anniversary of the return to Chinese rule. The “one country, two systems” arrangement was working well, he insisted. “There is no reason to change such a good system, and it must be supported for a long time.” He paused for another round of applause. “Youngsters have a future, Hong Kong has a future,” he concluded. Perhaps, but only on the Communist Party’s terms.
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