China’s president Xi Jinping has warned that power in Hong Kong “must be administered only by patriots” while navigating a “new stage of development, from chaos to order” as he presided over the swearing-in ceremony of the territory’s new chief executive, John Lee.
“No other places or countries in the world would allow those who are not patriotic, or even those who commit treason, to take the helm of their governments,” the Chinese president added on Friday in his first big speech in Hong Kong since his last visit to the territory five years ago.
Hong Kong was rocked by large and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in 2019, which were brought to heel by a strict new security law.
“Hong Kong and Macau should be able to maintain their capitalist system for a long period of time, with a high level of autonomy,” Mr Xi said. “But all Hong Kongers should be able to respect and safeguard the fundamental socialist system of the nation.”
In his first speech as chief executive, Mr Lee said that the city had overcome “foreign forces’ interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs that threatened the national security of the country”.
“With staunch support from the central government, Hong Kong is able to start over,” he added.
Mr Xi pledged his “support for Hong Kong’s status as a financial and trading centre”. But neither he nor Mr Lee immediately revealed any new policies to boost Hong Kong’s economy – or any relaxation of the seven-day quarantine for incoming travellers for which many executives have lobbied.
The Chinese president told the Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army that it had “played a pivotal role in helping Hong Kong return from chaos to order”.
State broadcaster CCTV said Mr Xi had also told the garrison during a visit on Friday morning that it should strengthen its military power to safeguard national security and maintain stability in the city.
The inauguration, held on the 25th anniversary of the former UK colony’s return to Beijing rule in 1997, came a day after Mr Xi arrived in Hong Kong on his first visit outside mainland China since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
Mr Xi’s visit on Thursday was brief, and he took a train back across the border to spend the night in Shenzhen, according to people briefed on his itinerary. He returned to Hong Kong on Friday morning for the swearing-in of Mr Lee, a career policeman and security official who played an instrumental role in crushing the 2019 pro-democracy protests.
The unusual itinerary reflected Beijing’s concerns about a recent increase in Covid cases in Hong Kong as well as potential safety risks despite a heavy security presence deployed across the territory over recent days.
“The central government has cracked down on autonomy in Hong Kong. It isn’t completely gone, but it is reduced, while [Xi] basically wants the financial position of Hong Kong to continue,” said John P Burns, an emeritus professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong. “The business community likes security, so long as they are free to do what they need to do to make money.”
Mr Lee’s ministerial team was also sworn in by Mr Xi, after which they trooped up to the president one by one and bowed before him.
Mr Xi did not join Mr Lee and his predecessor, Carrie Lam, for a traditional outdoor flag-raising ceremony, which took place despite strong winds and a typhoon warning. He returned to Shenzhen in the afternoon, having spent only about 10 hours in Hong Kong over the two days.
At least 10 journalists from local and foreign media outlets were barred from official events owing to “security concerns”, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken criticised Beijing and Hong Kong authorities for ignoring “democratic participation and fundamental freedoms, and an independent media”.
British prime minister Boris Johnson accused Beijing in a video clip posted on Twitter on Thursday of “[threatening] the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers”.
Accountancy firm BDO, colonial-era conglomerates Swire and Jardine Matheson and casino groups Wynn Macau and Melco were among the companies that extended congratulatory messages for Mr Xi’s visit in advertisements placed in local pro-Beijing newspapers on Friday. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022