President Xi Jinping wanted the world to believe that Hong Kong has “risen from the ashes”, but what everybody saw on July 1 was a once thriving island stranded in time, in a vice-like grip of Chinese security and counter-terrorism forces, looking more and more like the monotonous Mainland.
Xi was in Hong Kong on July 1, to mark the 25th anniversary of the handover of the island by the UK. He tried to hard-sell a “patriotic and prosperous” Hong Kong to the foreign companies and the trading community, but there were hardly any takers.
The President tried to convince the businesses that he was ushering in a new era of “stability”, but everybody appeared to be gauging the political risks of trading in Hong Kong.
On the day Xi landed on the island, the security forces had turned it into a security garrison. Key areas and tourist districts were turned into security fortresses. There were no-fly zones imposed on many areas of the island. PLA forces were already stationed in Hong Kong, ready for combat in the “toughest and most complicated” fights. Such was the tension that Xi decided to spend the night of June 30 in Shenzen, preferring to come to Hong Kong only the morning of July 1.
The forces ensured against democratic protests by warning all democracy activists to stay at home. Many opposition figures are already in jail or exile. This is the first hand-over anniversary when not a single protest was organized. Not taking risks, the forces closed down major roads, bridges and other transport facilities. Drones were prohibited across Hong Kong and in Shenzhen.
At least 10 journalists from local and foreign media outlets, “including news agencies Agence France-Presse and Reuters”, were banned from official events related to Xi’s visit this week over “security concerns”, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said. “The restrictions, which came all of a sudden . . . and the unclear criteria for rejecting journalists from [attending the events] have seriously damaged Hong Kong’s press freedom,” the HKJA said.
The authorities dumped the island in a sea of Chinese flags and red celebratory banners lined the harbor front. Hundreds of officials and school children were asked to be present at the island’s high-speed rail terminus, waving and chanting, to welcome President Xi who came by train.
This is his first trip outside mainland China after the Coronavirus pandemic started. He is now a few months from finishing his first decade in power and ready to accept the third term as boss of China. The Hong Kong visit thus marks a sort of political victory for the President for having cleaned Hong Kong of all visible signs of democratic and pro-independence protests by bringing in the draconian national security law.
President Xi used the occasion to declare a “new era” for Hong Kong and set new priorities for the city. Political loyalty, social stability and economic development have replaced democracy, individual freedoms and a thriving community.
Xi was all praise for the “one country, two systems” policy, and said there was no reason to change it, and it must be “upheld for the long term”. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, his speech, as well as one by new chief executive, John Lee, overwhelmingly emphasised Hong Kong’s convergence with Beijing rather than its divergence, according to media reports.
The Guardian reported: “Twenty-five years on from Hong Kong’s handover by the UK, integration with the rest of China is speeding up. ‘The ultimate interest of Hong Kong should be consistent with that of the country’s,’ Xi told his audience in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, where a quarter-century ago this week London transferred the territory’s sovereignty to Beijing. In the new era in Hong Kong, patriotism and loyalty are the bottom line. Despite international condemnation, the 2020 national security law was only the start of the process in ensuring the city is governed by those whose politics are in line with Beijing’s. The choice of a former security tsar as Hong Kong’s chief executive was a strong indication.”
The President laid down the rules for the Hong Kong of the future by saying that “after much turmoil, people have learned a painful lesson that Hong Kong cannot be disorderly, it cannot afford to be”. The territory is now “in a new phase from disorder to stability, from stability to prosperity”.
Despite the total ban on movement and presence of overwhelming security, President Xi tried to present Hong Kong as a window to the world. He sought to persuade the foreign businesses to believe in China’s programe for sustained development.
However, not many businesses are ready to take the bite. Some foreign investors are now “recalibrating their strategy in Hong Kong”. A German business confidence survey revealed that most respondents said Hong Kong’s business environment in 2022 was “worse than 2021 in terms of attraction of overseas talent, regional headquarters location, and political climate”.
What is worse, nearly 33 per cent of the surveyed companies said they were considering “a partial or full relocation in the next 12 months”. This “waning of confidence in what used to be one of Asia’s most business-friendly cities was further highlighted by the souring of the mood among western capitals”, The Guardian said.
Since coming to power, President Xi has waged an “ideological war” against the influence of “Western values” such as constitutional democracy, press freedom, judicial independence and universal human rights – “notions that have long been cherished in Hong Kong and formed an integral part of its identity”.
When the mainland refused to give in to the Hong Kongers’ demand for electoral reforms, several peaceful protests were organized between 2014 and 2017, including the 79-day-old Umbrella Movement.
All through this, Xi continued to warn the protesters not to “challenge the power” of the Central government. At the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover event, Xi told the people of Hong Kong: “Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security…or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line.”
Tensions again erupted in 2019 and a year later, the government in Beijing bypassed the Hong Kong legislature and brought in the national security law. As the media reported then, “in vaguely defined terms, the law criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces — and allows for maximum sentences of life imprisonment”.
As President embarks on re-shaping Hong Kong into a mirror image of mainland China with all its controls and surveillance of the population, thousands of the islanders try to migrate to other countries and now, even businesses are vary of continuing to be in Hong Kong.