Xi’s stern remarks Saturday—at ceremony in which he swore in Carrie Lam as Hong Kong’s first female chief executive—capped a three-day trip to mark the 20th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China. The president said the city must break political stalemates, find new economic drivers and address soaring home prices.
“Hong Kong needs to seize the opportunity of China’s development and focus its energy on building the economy and planning growth," Xi told a gathering of Hong Kong political and business leaders. “Pan-politicization will not resolve the problems. Hong Kong cannot afford to rock the boat, cannot afford internal strife."
The trip demonstrated for Hong Kong the confidence that Xi has sought to display at home and abroad as China’s economic clout gives it less reason to hide its strength and greater ability to shrug off international pressure. Since the last Chinese president visited five years ago, Hong Kong has been racked by doubts about the city’s growth model, protests for greater democracy and the emergence of a small independence movement.
To underscore his point, Xi came bearing gifts. The Hong Kong stock exchange announced that foreign investors would from Monday gain access to China’s $10 trillion debt market through a local bond connect. The Chinese and Hong Kong governments had earlier signed a pair of trade pacts giving local firms preferential investment access on the mainland.
Hong Kong’s economy is now equivalent to just 3% of the national economy, compared with 19% two decades ago, emboldening Chinese policymakers who see political dissent as an obstacle to growth. China has shown an increased willingness to impose its will on Hong Kong, despite an agreement with the British to preserve the city’s “high degree of autonomy" until 2047.
“If you look at Xi’s agenda, it is coming closer to his goal of returning China to a position of pre-eminence," said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “Xi’s Hong Kong trip has enhanced that message."
Earlier Saturday, Lam presided over a re-enactment of the flag-raising first performed in 1997 when the British ended their 156-year rule. After taking her oath as chief executive, the one-time colonial civil servant pledged to strengthen the public’s faith in the government and include younger people in political discussions.
“There has been a tendency to make cynical accusations, and to put personal grudges before objective facts," she said. “This has hurt the executive-legislature relationship, hindered governing effectiveness and directly dragged down our economic and social progress. We aim not only to enhance their understanding of and trust in the government, but also to nurture future talent and leaders in society and politics."
Intense security kept dissidents away from Xi. Scuffles broke out on Saturday, when a group of demonstrators including pro-democracy lawmaker “long-hair" Leung Kwok-hung attempted to carry a mock coffin to the conference centre, while calling for greater democracy, according to the Apple Daily. Joshua Wong, a former student activist who now runs his own political party, was detained by police, Radio Television Hong Kong reported.
China is battling skepticism over its promise to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy—including free speech and independent courts—under a framework called “one country, two systems". The failure to hold direct elections for the city’s leader and recent Chinese interventions in the Hong Kong’s legal affairs have energized young activists who led mass democracy protests almost three years ago and now advocate “self-determination".
“The only way out for us in the next three decades is to continue the bargaining power of us and the bargaining power of civil society," Wong, 20, told Bloomberg Television on Friday. He supports a referendum to determine the city’s political status after 2047.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators were expected to march through the city Saturday afternoon in an annual protest to demand greater democracy. Earlier on, only a few hundred mostly government supporters were gathering on the streets near the handover venue.
“Integration with China will be very good for Hong Kong’s economy, but Xi Jinping must realize that many of us have never known true Chinese rule," said Mike Lee, 20, who works in a nearby coffee shop. “We have been born into freedom. China has to be indulgent of Hong Kong’s aspirations."
Xi has attempted to show his concern for the city’s youth with a visit to a teenager recreation camp run by the police, which he praised for “instilling legal awareness from early on". His wife, Peng Liyuan, a famous People’s Liberation Army singer, visited a kindergarten.
Earlier Friday, Xi inspected the local People’s Liberation Army garrison from the back of a jeep, in a scene reminiscent of his September 2015 military parade in Beijing. He was accompanied by his top general and top diplomat. The country’s first aircraft carrier is scheduled to make an initial port visit to the city in the coming days.
Ting Wai, an international relations professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said Xi’s gestures sent a doubled-edged message. “This is the top leader saying he cares about Hong Kong and that he will support you in the future, but at the same time he wants to show who is in power." Bloomberg