China's leader defended his vision for the territory at events marking the 1997 handover from Britain, which accuses Beijing of trampling on human rights.
Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday defended his vision of the “one country, two systems" framework against accusations by the US, UK and others that Beijing has undermined the freedoms and autonomy promised to Hong Kong for 50 years.
In a speech marking 25 years since the city became a semi-autonomous Chinese region following its handover from Britain in 1997, Xi said the “one country, two systems” framework — which allows Hong Kong to have its own laws and government — had achieved “universally recognised success.”
“There is no reason for such a good system to change, and it must be maintained for a long time,” he said.
But Xi also emphasized that Beijing had “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, and that Hong Kong should respect Chinese leadership.
He warned that there would be no tolerance for foreign interference or traitors to meddle in Hong Kong's affairs, and that “safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests” is of the highest priority.
“Nobody in any country or region in the world will allow foreign countries or even traitorous forces and figures to seize power,” he said, adding that only by having patriots governing Hong Kong, can Hong Kong ensure long-term stability.
For some of China's critics, Xi's claims that the governing framework agreed in 1997 is being upheld bear no relation to reality.
"It is the end of an era, it is the end of 'one country, two systems'," exiled Hong Kong activist Samuel Chu told Reuters from Oslo, Norway. "This is a city that is no longer recognisable."
Unlike the pro-democracy protests of 2019, there were no demonstrations this time, with the most outspoken opposition politicians and democracy activists either in jail or self-exile.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused China on Thursday of failing to comply with the 1997 agreement, and said Britain would do all it could to hold Beijing to its commitments on democratic rights.
The UK has been especially critical of a national security law imposed in 2020 and electoral changes that it says erode the freedoms and autonomy of Hong Kong.
In response, the Chinese foreign ministry accused the UK of retaining a colonial mindset, as well as using human rights as a pretext to smear Hong Kong.
Xi last visited Hong Kong in 2017 for the July 1 celebrations, during which he warned that there would be no tolerance for any activities seen as threatening China’s sovereignty and stability.
The months of pro-democracy protests in 2019 were seen by China’s ruling Communist Party as just such a threat.
The subsequent national security law drawn up by Beijing and Hong Kong has since been used to arrest scores of activists, media figures and democracy supporters; introduced a more “patriotic” curriculum in schools; and revamped election laws to keep opposition politicians who are deemed not patriotic enough out of the city’s Legislature.
The changes have all but eliminated dissenting voices in the city and have driven many to leave. Britain introduced an immigration route for holders of overseas British passports, with Johnson saying there had been 120,000 applications under the scheme by people from Hong Kong.
Xi's two-day trip to Hong Kong is his first outside of mainland China since the pandemic took hold in January 2020. Security was beefed up for his arrival, with designated security and no-fly zones. Thousands of guests were required to take daily coronavirus tests and ordered to check into quarantine hotels ahead of their attendance of events with Xi on Thursday and Friday.
Xi also officiated the swearing-in ceremony of Hong Kong's new leader John Lee, a former security official who oversaw the crackdown on dissent in the city since 2019 pro-democracy protests. Lee pledged to uphold the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and bear allegiance to Hong Kong. He also pledged to be accountable to the central government in Beijing.
At a morning flag-raising ceremony — attended by Lee, his predecessor Carrie Lam and other officials but not Xi — police officers carrying the Chinese and Hong Kong flags marched into Golden Bauhinia Square for the ceremony with the Chinese “goose-stepping” style, replacing a British-style march. Guests stood at attention as the Chinese national anthem was played.