Xi Jinping brought Hong Kong to heel. Now he’s back in a city transformed

Cnn staff

Hong Kong (CNN)Chinese and Hong Kong flags flutter above streets and red celebratory banners line the harbor front, as thousands of Hong Kong police guard the city’s high-speed rail terminus, welcoming the arrival of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.


In his first trip outside mainland China since the start of the pandemic, Xi arrived in Hong Kong Thursday to mark the 25th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule on July 1 — a highly symbolic event at a pivotal time for both the city, and Xi himself.
The former British colony is midway through the 50-year promise of “a high degree of autonomy,” given by Beijing under a framework known as “one country, two systems.” It is also swearing in its newly appointed leader, hardline former police officer John Lee.
Xi, meanwhile, is only months away from finishing his first decade in power — and is widely expected to seek an unprecedented third term at a key meeting of the ruling Communist Party this fall.
The two-day trip is a timely declaration of political victory for Xi, who has brought Hong Kong to heel with a sweeping national security law following the 2019 anti-government protests. In just two years, critics say, the law has been used to crush the city’s opposition movement, overhaul its electoral system, silence its outspoken media and cripple its once-vibrant civil society.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied the national security law is suppressing freedoms. Instead, it insists the law has ended chaos and restored stability to the city.
For an authoritarian leader obsessed with stability, Hong Kong may now feel more like home than ever. Unlike his previous visits to the city, Xi no longer needs to worry about any public expression of dissent — be it critical headlines on local newspaper front pages, protest slogans on billboards or mass rallies in the streets.
Instead, he is set to be surrounded by only “patriotic” officials, loyal tycoons and a blanket of heavy security measures — including extensive roadblocks and a citywide ban on drones. He will be separated from the public by a meticulously maintained “closed loop” system — put in place to protect him against the city’s rising Covid-19 infections.
In a sign of the heightened security, journalists from at least seven media organizations, including CNN, were blocked from covering the ceremony days before the event, after initially receiving accreditation.
Beijing’s supporters say Hong Kong has ushered in a “new era of stability, prosperity and opportunity.”
“This is an important milestone for our nation and Hong Kong,” the city’s government said in a statement marking the anniversary. “(It) not only captures Hong Kong’s impressive achievements over the past two and a half decades, it also underscores our eager anticipation for and confidence in a brighter future.”
But critics fear Hong Kong is being increasingly reshaped in China’s image. To some, the “one country, two systems” experiment is already dead — 25 years ahead of schedule.

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