Chinese President Xi Jinping has arrived in Hong Kong by high-speed rail ahead of celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty from the United Kingdom.
The anniversary is marked each year on July 1 and this year’s activities will include the swearing-in of the city’s new leader, John Lee, as chief executive
The trip is reportedly Xi’s first trip outside mainland China since the COVID-19 pandemic began and his first trip to Hong Kong since 2017. It also comes after huge pro-democracy rallies and protests engulfed the city in 2019.
“In the past period, Hong Kong has experienced more than one serious test, and overcome more than one risk and challenge,” Xi said after his arrival.
“After the storms, Hong Kong has been reborn of fire and emerged with robust vitality.”
Reporting from Hong Kong, Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown said the city was “adorned with banners and flags with a very strong patriotic theme”, with the underlying message effectively being that “China is back in control once more”.
“It’s very powerful symbolism,” he added.
Whether Xi would attend the upcoming ceremony in person on Friday was debated in Hong Kong media in recent weeks due to a recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases. China and Hong Kong have imposed some of the strictest rules in the world against the disease while the mainland continues to pursue a “dynamic COVID zero” policy.
Thousands of attendees taking part in the official activities on Friday have been required to quarantine in hotels ahead of time and have to undergo daily nucleic testing. Much of Hong Kong’s local and international media, by contrast, will not be attending after they were denied accreditation, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
Before Xi’s arrival, security was tightened at West Kowloon station as well as near Hong Kong’s local government headquarters and the site of a flag-raising ceremony on Friday next to Victoria Harbour.
Lee, the former secretary for security, will replace outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who served only one term despite a long career as a colonial and then post-handover civil servant.
He ran as the only candidate for chief executive in a May election and was chosen by a special committee of just 1,500 electors.
As a precondition of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover, the former British colony was promised special rights and privileges until 2047 under the “one country, two systems” agreement between China and the UK.
The agreement is largely believed to have been voided by national security legislation imposed by Beijing two years ago in response to the months of pro-democracy demonstrations. Millions of people in Hong Kong took part in the protest movement, which was eventually brought to an end by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the restrictions imposed to contain it.