China’s leader ‘thrilled’ to be in Hong Kong for handover anniversary

Wave of protests expected as Xi Jinping arrives for first visit as Chinese president

China’s president Xi Jinping and his wife  Peng Liyuan are greeted on arrival at  Hong Kong International Airport  on Thursday. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

China’s president Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan are greeted on arrival at Hong Kong International Airport on Thursday. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

 

Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong at the start of his first visit as Chinese president, during a visit to mark the upcoming 20th anniversary of the former British colony returning to Chinese rule.

Mr Xi’s Air China plane touched down at midday at the start of the visit and he addressed waiting dignitaries and supporters, hailing their commitment for braving the boiling temperatures on the tarmac.

“The central government will work with all sectors of Hong Kong society to look back at Hong Kong’s extraordinary journey in the past 20 years, sum up the experience and look forward to the future,” said Mr Xi, who was accompanied by his wife Peng Liyuan. “It’s been nine years since I last set foot in this place. I’m thrilled.”

“Hong Kong has been tugging away at my heart,” he added, before speeding off in a motorcade.

After lengthy negotiations involving the UK’s then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, Britain returned the Asian financial hub to Chinese rule at midnight on June 30th 1997 under a “one country, two systems” model which guarantees autonomy and judicial independence not allowed in mainland China.

Security was tight in the territory this week as authorities geared up for an expected wave of protests by pro-democracy activists against Mr Xi’s visit. Late on Wednesday, dozens of Hong Kong pro-independence demonstrators were detained for causing a “public nuisance” at a giant flower sculpture downtown.

There have been growing divisions between Hong Kong and China amid concern and resentment over Beijing’s growing interference.

Among those detained were Joshua Wong, who as a teenager led 2014’s “Umbrella Movement” protests, and Nathan Law, another student protest leader who was elected to the legislative council last year.

Conciliatory tone

Hong Kong has been bitterly divided between those who want more democracy and autonomy for the territory, and those who want to get closer to China and align Hong Kong’s destiny with that of the Communist Party in Beijing.

In a conciliatory tone, Mr Xi said his trip had three purposes – to encourage Hong Kong to create a brighter future and show central government support for the city. “For 20 years the central government has always been a strong backing for Hong Kong. We will always support Hong Kong’s development and improvement of livelihood,” he said.

His third reason for coming to Hong Kong was to map out a future for the city and ensure the “one country, two systems” formula would be carried forward smoothly.

The softer tone of Mr Xi’s remarks is unlikely to divert protestors from marking the handover anniversary. A protest planned for Saturday, the day of the anniversary proper, could draw up to 100,000 people.

His trip continues until Saturday when he will oversee an inauguration ceremony for the Hong Kong’s new leader, Carrie Lam, who was chosen by a small powerful elite that mostly backs Beijing.

Local media reported that 11 pro-democracy lawmakers had received an invitation to a series of official events in celebration of the anniversary, including a banquet with Mr Xi. Those invited include Wu Chi-wai and Lam Cheuk-ting from the Democratic Party and Alvin Yeung from the Civic Party.