Xi Jinping, China’s leader, cautiously visits Hong Kong

HONG KONG – Since the pandemic broke out in 2020, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has been locked in a virus-free bubble within his country’s closed borders. On Thursday, he left the safe confines of the mainland for the first time, arriving in Hong Kong for a tightly scheduled visit to bolster his authority over the city.

Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, were greeted by schoolchildren and supporters waving flower bouquets and small Chinese and Hong Kong flags as they got off a high-speed train at the closed-off West Kowloon station to begin a two-day visit. Lion dancers performed as the neatly arranged rows of greeters chanted, “Welcome, warm welcome.”

Mr Xi’s decision to visit Hong Kong despite a recent rise in Covid infections in the city underscores the importance of signaling his control over the former British colony. This is Mr Xi’s first time in Hong Kong since pro-democracy protesters posed a serious challenge to Beijing’s rule in 2019, which engulfed the area for months. In the years that followed, Mr. Xi cracked down on dissent, arresting thousands of people, including leading opposition figures, lawmakers, academics, newspaper editors and a retired Catholic bishop.

For many residents, the crackdown sent a chill across the city, rendering it unrecognizable. Mr Xi tried to make a positive note about the city’s “brighter future” in a short speech upon his arrival.

“Hong Kong has endured one tough challenge after another, overcoming one danger after another,” he said. “After the storm, Hong Kong has been reborn from the ashes and shows a thriving vitality.”

mr. Xi has not left China for 29 months. His absence is becoming more and more noticeable, especially as a wave of diplomacy emerged in response to the war in Ukraine and its political, military and economic consequences. He made a video call to a Group of 20 meeting in December; he sent a written statement to the November climate meeting in Glasgow. He has yet to meet President Biden in person.

The inward twist points largely to Beijing’s preoccupation with protecting Mr Xi’s health ahead of an all-important Communist Party congress later this year, where he is expected to lay claim to another five years as China’s leader. But for Mr Xi, taking a victory lap in Hong Kong is crucial to confirm his vision of national rejuvenation, in which the Communist Party will restore China to what it sees as its rightful place as a world power.

“Although he hasn’t been away from mainland China since early 2020, Xi thinks that given his prestige and popularity, it would be good for him to visit just for a few hours,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a deputy professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, citing local news reports that Mr Xi would not stay overnight in Hong Kong and would instead travel back to the neighboring Chinese city of Shenzhen.

“Hong Kong has undergone drastic changes in the past three years, so he wants to reassure the public,” Mr Lam said.

To keep the virus out during Mr Xi’s visit, Hong Kong has established an elaborate, closed-loop bubble. Thousands of government officials, dozens of foreign dignitaries and a carefully selected group of journalists were asked to undergo a week of daily rapid antigen testing and be locked up in a hotel for quarantine this week. Office workers in a neighborhood Xi reportedly planned to visit were told to stay at home. One school even quarantined dozens of students for several days so they could greet Mr. Xi upon his arrival.

The strict epidemic protocols Hong Kong has imposed for Mr Xi’s visit contrast with many places with similarly high vaccination rates, which abolished such controls months ago. But China is the latest country in the world to adopt a policy of trying to eradicate Covid, and is most likely concerned about an increase in cases in Hong Kong, where more than 2,000 daily Covid cases were reported on Wednesday for the first time since April. registered. †

The closely choreographed visit, with few publicly announced details and a high level of security, suggests that Mr. Xi will be restrained and protesters will be kept at a distance, avoiding any unwelcome surprises.

Mr Xi is expected to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the city’s next leader, John Lee, a former security chief, and his government on Friday, as every Chinese leader has done since the city’s official handover ceremony in 1997. Beijing had promised Hong Kong’s 50 years of “one country, two systems”, allowing it to retain its freedom of speech, assembly and press unimaginable on the mainland after China resumed sovereignty. But in the middle of that half-century, Hong Kong’s distinctive differences have dwindled as Mr. Xi tightened Beijing’s hold on the city.

On his last visit to Hong Kong in 2017, Mr Xi presided over the 20th anniversary of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s handover and inauguration. Her term in office would be defined by the city-wide anti-government protests, which began as peaceful gatherings in the face of an unpopular bill but turned into sometimes violent anti-government dissidents in response to brutal police tactics and Beijing’s encroachment on civil liberties.

Mr Xi imposed a comprehensive national security law on the city in 2020 to stamp out opposition to the ruling Communist Party. Since then, the arrests of dozens of protesters and pro-democracy lawmakers and the closing of several news outlets have transformed the city, once known for its culture of political activism and freedom of expression.

As part of the Covid bubble in Hong Kong ahead of Mr Xi’s visit, foreign consuls invited to attend were instructed to undergo daily Covid tests from June 23 and limit their movements to a “point-to-point”. -point closed loop” system consisting of and office. “Collecting activities and contact with other people should be avoided,” the Celebration Coordination Office said in a booklet sent to several consulates and seen by The New York Times. Guests were told to be in hotel quarantine on June 30.

Journalists covering the event were sent to a different hotel from officials and dignitaries, on the other side of Victoria Harbour. The media presence will be smaller and more controlled than at previous handover commemoration ceremonies. More than 10 journalists have been denied permission to report on Mr Xi’s visit, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association. Asked for comment on the restrictions, the government said it was balancing media participation with “security requirements”.

In addition to the guests attending events, hundreds of hotel workers, cleaners and other staff who helped make the closed loop possible were also quarantined.

Cathy Cheng Yuk-ting, an employee of the Camlux Hotel in Kowloon Bay, where reporters and some government officials and members of the police began their quarantine on Wednesday, said she had been quarantined at the hotel since Monday.

Ms Cheng, 39, said she missed her three daughters: two four-year-old twins and a toddler. She had volunteered to work shifts during what she called a historic week.

Every day after work, she goes back to her hotel room for a video call with her family. “My daughters asked, ‘Mom, why can’t you go home?'” she said. “But this is my job. There is no other way.”

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