How Xi Jinping tightened his grip on Hong Kong, 25 years after the handover

Chinese president Xi Jinping swore in John Lee as Hong Kong’s new chief executive on Friday, marking a new era of antidemocratic governance in the city once known as China’s economic gateway to the West.

Friday was also the 25th anniversary of the United Kingdom’s agreement to return Hong Kong to China in 1997. That agreement promised a “one country, two systems” governing principle until 2047 — the idea being that although the city would belong to Beijing, Hong Kongers would continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy relative to mainland citizens, including a freer press, an independent judiciary, and its own local government. However, under Xi’s leadership, China has repeatedly insisted that the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the agreement governing the handover and protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties, is no longer relevant, meaning they think Beijing has every right to assert its authority there.

Lee’s swearing in, and Xi’s visit to Kong Kong to preside over it, are the symbolic culmination of years of increasingly authoritarian crackdowns on the city — and indicate that efforts to curtail civil rights there will only increase as leadership’s ties to Beijing become stronger.

Lee ran uncontested after radical changes to Hong Kong’s electoral laws effectively barred opposition candidates from running. He won 99 percent of a committee vote in May as the only Beijing-approved candidate. Lee is is a career police officer, unlike previous chief executives who had business or civil service expertise. He not only supported 2019’s controversial extradition bill that prompted a year of turmoil in Hong Kong, he oversaw the police force accused of using water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and even live ammunition against protesters.

“It really marks a fundamental shift” for Hong Kong’s future, Eric Yan-ho Lai, the Hong Kong Law Fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law told Vox. “John Lee’s being chosen demonstrates that political security remains top priority” for Beijing.

In a speech Friday, Xi trumpeted the city’s return to order after the past two years of Covid-19 restrictions and the pro-democracy protests of 2019, though the government achieved that order by enforcing its draconian National Security Law, which has jailed many pro-democracy activists, forced others into exile and silenced the independent press.

“After ups and downs, we deeply recognize that Hong Kong cannot afford to be destabilized,” he said.

What was different about Xi’s anniversary speech this time around

Xi’s speech marking the anniversary called on “patriots” — those loyal to Xi and his party — to command political power in Hong Kong. “Nobody in any country or region in the world will allow foreign countries or even traitorous forces and figures to seize power,” he said, echoing his 2017 speech marking the 20-year anniversary of the Hong Kong handover.

“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government … or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible,” he said five years ago.

While both speeches framed dissent as sabotage and potentially foreign interference, there was a significant difference between the two: There were no protests this year.

Typically, as Zen Soo writes for the Associated Press, the official anniversary ceremony is followed by a protest march in the afternoon. This time, though, protests weren’t allowed, with the Wall Street Journal’s Selina Chen reporting that police warned even small activist groups to stay out of sight on July 1, and arrested nine people for allegedly planning to commit sedition.

The press, too, was tightly controlled around Xi’s visit — his first trip outside mainland China since the pandemic began. Reporters from international outlets including CNN and Reuters were barred from attending Xi’s speech and other official events for “security reasons,” according to the Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA). “With media unable to send journalists on the ground, the HKJA expresses utmost regret over the rigid reporting arrangements made by the authorities for such a major event,” the HKJA said in a statement.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong (FCCHK) told CNN that, ”In the past, similar official events were open to media registration without invitation or vetting.” This time, according to CNN, police rejected some reporters’ applications to cover the official events, with no further explanation. “The FCCHK views these restrictions — enforced without detailed explanation — as a serious deviation from that stated commitment to press freedom,” they said.

Asked by about those changes and other rollbacks to civil rights over the past five years, pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip told the BBC Newshour program on Friday that “freedoms are not absolute.”

What’s next for Hong Kong — and China

Lee’s tenure — and Xi’s support for it — mark a low point for civil rights and political freedom in Hong Kong. They also show Xi’s disdain for global human rights norms and a growing geopolitical divide between east and west, Lai said. “Xi Jinping’s vision is not to bring China in line” with those norms, he told Vox, but to assert dominance in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, which threaten to provide alternative visions of political and social life. “Hong Kong seems to be the lesson.”

The Chinese government has repeatedly insisted that the Sino-British Joint Declaration is “a historical document only,” Lai told Vox. “But the fact is that the Joint Declaration is a UN-registered treaty.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss issued a statement on the 25th anniversary of the handover, in which she called the treaty “legally binding” and decried the “steady erosion of political and civil rights since the imposition of the National Security Law.”

In a statement Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the National Security Law “set the stage for an erosion of autonomy and dismantling of the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents over the last two years,” allowing for the detention of dissidents, crackdowns on independent media, closure and destruction of cultural and artistic expression, and the general weakening of democratic institutions in Hong Kong. “Government officials have spread disinformation that grassroots protests were the work of foreign actors,” Blinken said in the statement, adding, “they have done all of this in an effort to deprive Hong Kongers of what they have been promised.”

But measured statements from foreign officials are not likely to sway Lee or Xi; in fact, Lai told Vox that he believes Lee “will continue to introduce national security laws,” and that Hong Kong’s future “depends on Beijing” and its tolerance — or lack thereof — for Hong Kong’s democratic institutions.

Xi’s speech on Friday pushed Lee to focus on improving Hong Kongers’ standard of living, claiming that “what Hong Kong people desire the most are a better life, a bigger apartment, more business startup opportunities, better education for their kids and better elderly care,” a statement consistent with his government’s strategy to blame social dissatisfaction on economic inequality. Lee, in turn, promised economic development in the northern part of the city and further integration with southern mainland cities, saying that, “Development is the gold key to resolving social problems and improving people’s livelihood.”

But more important than economic development for Xi is having a chief executive he can count on to bring Hong Kong closer to the mainland and quash any dissent. “Political power,” he said in a speech swearing in the new leadership, “must be in the hands of patriots.”

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