As Xi Jinping, China’s leader, visits Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of the handover from Britain, he arrives in a city vastly transformed from three years ago, when millions took to the streets in the biggest challenge to Beijing’s rule in decades.
Mr. Xi’s ruling Communist Party quashed that challenge by tightening its grip. The authorities arrested thousands of protesters and activists, imposed a national security law that silenced dissent and rewrote electoral rules to shut out critics of Beijing.
“This is a significant trip for him,” said John P. Burns, an emeritus professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong. “Of course, this is about celebrating the 25th anniversary and all of that, but he is also declaring victory over the pan-democratic opposition and their supporters.”
On Friday Mr. Xi installed a handpicked former security official as the city’s next leader. He had earlier met with lawmakers selected after Beijing’s electoral overhaul ensured only “patriots” could take office in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong and Chinese officials attended a brief ceremony Friday morning where a police honor guard raised the flags of China and Hong Kong to mark the anniversary. A strong wind blew, and the skies were overcast and threatening rain. A government helicopter with a large Chinese flag, followed by another with a smaller Hong Kong flag, flew down Victoria Harbor as the ceremony was held at 8 a.m., followed by a fire department boat spraying water from its hoses.
But the pomp and ceremony was a stark contrast to the relative quiet on the streets under a pronounced security presence. Groups of police patrolled neighborhoods near the venue of the ceremony, and rows of police vans lined the entrances to several subway stations. To many residents of Hong Kong, the handover anniversary and Mr. Xi’s visit held little significance besides a day off.
“The central government doesn’t have to do much for Hong Kong. Just let Hong Kong fix things by itself. It’s a free economy right? It wasn’t under much governance before,” said Joeson Kwak, a 33-year-old interior design contractor who was in the district of Wanchai getting breakfast. “I don’t feel anything special today. I’m happy I don’t have to go to work today.”
Mr. Xi’s visit is as much a message intended to reinforce Beijing’s rule over Hong Kong to the city’s 7.5 million residents as it is a message of defiance to the Western governments that had denounced his crackdown. The United States, Britain and other nations have accused China of breaking its promises to allow Hong Kong to preserve its protections for individual rights for 50 years under an arrangement known as one country, two systems.
Subduing Hong Kong also has personal significance for Mr. Xi. It will help burnish his standing among the Communist Party elite at a key moment as he pursues a third five-year term in office, which he is widely expected to secure later this year.
“We can expect at the party congress in October he will highlight the success of one country, two systems,” said Sonny Lo, a Hong Kong political commentator.
To local activists, July 1 has been an anniversary of pivotal demonstrations. But a combination of pandemic restrictions and the political crackdown has largely eliminated such gatherings. One leftist group, the League of Social Democrats, had continued to mark significant dates with small demonstrations of just four people, which is technically allowed under social distancing rules.
But after visits from national security police, the group announced this week it would not hold a protest on Friday. Members of the group have been under constant surveillance and their organization was threatened with closure if they tried to demonstrate, said Avery Ng, the group’s secretary general.
“It is just like China,” he said.