Xi Jinping eyes Hong Kong ‘victory lap’ as locals watch warily

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HONG KONG — Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to travel outside mainland China for the first time since the pandemic began on Thursday to witness the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule.

For Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, who is set to serve an unprecedented third term later this year, the proceedings are a chance to cement personal power over the Chinese Communist Party by declaring the nation has become more stronger and more united under his rule.

But for many in Hong Kong, halfway through a 50-year period in which the city was guaranteed a “high degree of autonomy” under a mechanism known as “one country, two systems” is a moment to mourn the erosion of freedoms and dash hopes for a more democratic future.

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“After the uprising and protests in 2019 and 2020, the government in Beijing wants to show that everything is under control – the opposition and rebel elements have been wiped out,” said Ho-fung Hung, professor of political economy at the University. ‘Johns Hopkins University. “It’s a victory lap, and Xi Jinping will try to show that he is the one who pulled off this so-called ‘second comeback’ from Hong Kong.”

The crushing of pro-democracy protests has frayed Beijing’s relationship with the city’s youth and with many Western governments. But for the Chinese Communist Party, which values ​​its political control and the nation’s territorial integrity more highly, breaking decades of inaction and backsliding to pass national security legislation for Hong Kong is an achievement. important.

Chinese scholars have started talking about Hong Kong’s “second return”. Zheng Yongnian, an influential political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told state media that the early years of Chinese rule after 1997 were “sovereignty without power to govern”. But Xi 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 “transforms from a radical democracy to a form of democracy more suited to the culture and social class of Hong Kong”. structure.”

At the forefront of that agenda for new Chief Executive John Lee, the political chief who has overseen the crackdown on protests, will be to uphold Article 23 of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution of the city, which obliges him to promulgate laws to prohibit treason, secession, sedition and subversion. Such legislation was scrapped in 2003 after mass protests.

But Xi’s ambitions go beyond police and legal overhauls, and aim for sweeping changes in education and society designed to bolster support for the CCP regime.

Acceptance of a Beijing-designed future may be more difficult among the generation born around the handover, who expected greater democratic freedoms and were introduced into local politics through protests against Beijing’s impositions.

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“When I was young, I didn’t know what universal suffrage was, but later, after experiencing the umbrella revolution, I changed my mind,” said Coco Au, 25, a student in postgraduate in law, referring to the 2014 protests aimed at changes in Hong. Kong’s electoral system that allowed Beijing to pre-select political candidates.

Many people born around 1997 feel betrayed. Jeff Yau, 25, grew up feeling the transfer had been a happy event, but more recently has begun to fear for City’s future. “I feel a bit smothered and feel like Hong Kong is less open than Western countries,” he said.

Despite the jubilant tone of Chinese state media ahead of Friday’s ceremonies, there are signs that Xi remains worried about Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong. Local media, citing unnamed government sources, reported that Xi would not spend the night in the city and would instead return across the mainland border to Shenzhen after having dinner with outgoing chief executive Carrie Lam, back in Hong Kong on Friday morning for the appointment ceremony of Lee, the former police chief who will take his place.

Much of Hong Kong has been closed to ensure a smooth visit. High barricades filled with water line the streets near the exhibition center where the celebrations will be held. The Legislative Council has canceled its weekly meeting so lawmakers can quarantine and adhere to strict coronavirus restrictions for ceremonies. Police banned drones across Hong Kong during the visit.

At least 10 journalists from local and foreign media were barred from covering the proceedings, according to the South China Morning Post. The League of Social Democrats, a pro-democracy political organization, said on Tuesday it would not demonstrate 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 deeply uncertain time. Claudia Tang, 59, left town for Australia at the time hoping to emigrate, but later returned. She is now largely optimistic about Hong Kong’s future, despite Beijing’s dominance.

“I have the impression that national education is a good thing. Many young people don’t understand what “one country, two systems” means, she said.

This confusion may in part be because China’s explanations have evolved over time. Gone are the pithy promises of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping from before 1997 that “Hong Kong horses will continue to be raced and dances will be danced” after the handover. Replace them with Xi’s views, as stated on the 20th anniversary of the transfer of power, that “one country” forms the deep roots of a system of governance “advanced, above all, to achieve and maintain unity national”.

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The creation of the “one country, two systems” formula that underpinned the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 is considered one of the defining achievements of Deng’s leadership. Even today, Chinese state media routinely features videos of Deng waving at then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while declaring that Hong Kong’s sovereignty was not up for debate.

Many questions about Hong Kong’s future left unanswered by Deng have been resoundingly answered by Xi, often by imposing the Chinese Communist Party’s interpretations of history on the territory. Recently, Hong Kong officials revised secondary school textbooks to teach the party’s position that the territory was never a British colony; it has never been occupied except illegally.

At an event on Monday, Chris Patten, Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong, argued that there was little the UK could have done before 1997 to avert the recent repressive turn in Hong Kong, “because the real story about Hong Kong today concerns the selection of Xi Jinping to lead China.

At the time, Patten added, the Hong Kong handover was seen as a “canary in the mineshaft” to test whether the Chinese regime would prove itself brutally interested or trustworthy in international affairs, but that issue has now found an answer. “The canary was, as far as it could manage, strangled,” he said.

Even in 1997, 50-year-old Ken Lam, who works in logistics, guessed that a bigger crackdown was coming but couldn’t leave at the time and resigned himself to the city’s fate. “I now have the ability to leave, but part of me also wants to stay and watch how much worse Hong Kong can get. After all, this place is where I grew up,” he said. declared.

Shepherd reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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