Friday , September 30 2022

Xi Jinping Tells a Muted Hong Kong That Political Power Is for Patriots

HONG KONG — Under swarms of security, beneath clouds threatening rain, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, marked the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China with a showcase of just how thoroughly he had transformed and subdued this once-freewheeling city.

The police goose-stepped in Chinese military fashion at a flag-raising ceremony and showed off new mainland-made armored vehicles. The city’s streets were empty of the protesters who traditionally gathered by the thousands each July 1. And Mr. Xi delivered a stern admonition that the open dissent and pro-democracy activism that had roiled — and, in many ways, defined — the city in recent years are things of the past.

“Political power must be in the hands of patriots,” he said, after swearing in a new leader for the city, a former policeman who led the crackdown on huge anti-government protests in 2019. “There is no country or region in the world that would allow unpatriotic or even treasonous or traitorous forces and people to take power.”

The day’s ceremonies would have been momentous in any case, marking the halfway point in the 50 years that China promised Hong Kong would remain unchanged after the end of British colonial rule. But they took on special significance as the first time that Mr. Xi had visited the city since the furious, at times violent protests of 2019, and since he launched a sweeping and successful assault on civil liberties in response. In the last three years, the authorities have arrested thousands of protesters and activists, imposed a national security law criminalizing virtually all dissent, and barred government critics from running in elections.

The anniversary also coincided with one of the most fraught geopolitical moments China has faced in recent history. Its relations with Western democracies have become badly frayed, including over its treatment of Hong Kong and friendly relationship with Russia. And tensions over Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, are escalating.

Mr. Xi is only months away from an important Communist Party congress, when he is expected to claim an unprecedented third term and cement his status as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

In that sense, Mr. Xi’s visit was at once a declaration of victory over the opposition in Hong Kong, an assertion of power to viewers at home, and a warning to his critics abroad.

“The case of Hong Kong makes clear that challenges and subversions of China’s core national interests inevitably will meet with serious counterattacks, and ultimately will fail,” Tian Feilong, an assistant professor of law at Beihang University in Beijing, and a prominent hawkish voice on the central government’s Hong Kong policy.

Mr. Xi has taken a far harder line on Hong Kong than his predecessors had done. Hong Kong had long been home to vibrant civil society and protests — many directly critical of the Chinese government — but during Mr. Xi’s last visit, on the 20th anniversary of the handover in 2017, he for the first time laid out a “red line.” Any perceived threat to the central government’s sovereignty would “never be permitted,” he said.

The 2017 speech alarmed some local scholars and pro-democracy activists, who worried Mr. Xi was telegraphing an end to the “one country, two systems” arrangement negotiated by Britain and China to guarantee Hong Kong liberties impossible in the rest of the country. But at the time, those liberties still appeared mostly intact. Immediately after Mr. Xi’s speech, thousands of protesters gathered for an annual march demanding greater democracy.

Today, that Hong Kong has disappeared almost entirely — largely because Mr. Xi followed through on his warning. After the 2019 protests, which presented the greatest challenge to Chinese Communist Party rule in decades, Beijing responded by enacting the national security law. It has led to virtually all the leaders of the opposition being arrested or going into exile. Protests are nonexistent. Rewritten textbooks emphasize patriotism.

The importance, and success, of that campaign was a central theme of Mr. Xi’s speech on Friday. No longer did Mr. Xi need to dissuade Hong Kongers from dissent, which had been so thoroughly stamped out. Instead, he laid out a vision for an improved future, in which the Hong Kong people got rich, kindled their love of Chinese identity and fueled China’s global rise.

“At this moment, Hong Kong is entering a new stage — moving from the transition from chaos to governance, toward the transition from governance to prosperity,” Mr. Xi told a crowd of carefully vetted officials.

The renewed focus on Chinese identity and prosperity was also reflected in Mr. Xi’s itinerary. In 2017, he visited the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong, reviewing the troops from the back of an open-topped jeep, in what some saw as an unspoken threat of military force. This year, he went to a science park, where he discussed research into artificial intelligence, robotics and treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. His wife, Peng Liyuan, went to a performing center for Cantonese opera, where she watched local troupes rehearse, emphasizing Chinese culture in a city where many have resisted China’s embrace.

While Mr. Xi did visit the headquarters of the Chinese military this year, it was a brief stop before leaving town, without the fanfare of five years ago.

By emphasizing Hong Kong’s economic potential, Mr. Xi was revisiting a frequent central government claim that Hong Kongers’ anger in recent years was rooted not in politics, particularly the desire for democracy, but rather in socioeconomic causes. In his speech, he effectively extended to Hong Kongers the tacit political bargain that undergirds the Communist Party’s power in the mainland: total political control by the party, in exchange for economic prosperity for the people.

“What Hong Kongers want most is the hope of a better life, a more spacious home, more business opportunities, better education for their children and better care in their old age,” he said.

Around the city on Friday, some residents did say the economy was their primary concern. “I don’t mind the handover either way, as long as I get my mouth fed,” said Candy Leung, 62, who runs an outdoor eatery serving noodle soups and egg toast. “Only some people have a bit extreme thoughts about the government.”

As she spoke, a line of six police officers carrying shields and walkie-talkies filed past.

But just because the heavily policed streets were empty of protests did not mean that political discontent did not exist.

At least one long-established activist group, the League of Social Democrats, had planned to hold a small protest on Friday — group gatherings are still limited by coronavirus restrictions — but announced this week that they would cancel it, after warnings from the police.

Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers have emigrated since the security law was enacted. Ted Hui, a former opposition lawmaker who fled abroad while facing several criminal charges for protesting, said the security restrictions on Mr. Xi’s trip meant he gained little understanding of what the city’s residents think.

“He doesn’t see the general public at all,” said Mr. Hui, who now lives in Australia. “What’s promoted as prosperous and glamorous is only on the surface. Below the surface there is anger spreading among the population.”

Hours after Mr. Xi delivered his speech, he was back on the train, leaving Hong Kong as a tropical storm neared, dumping rain on the city. He came to mark a victory, but his quick departure left questions about its certainty, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.

“Basically he sees Hong Kong as rebel territory, where you can claim victory but are not quite sure victory is complete,” he said. “It sounds like George Bush on that aircraft carrier claiming ‘Mission Accomplished.’”

Vivian Wang reported from Beijing. Alexandra Stevenson, Joy Dong and Zixu Wang contributed reporting.

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