HONG KONG: President Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong on Thursday to mark 20 years since its return to China by Britain, with activists under arrest as authorities sought to avoid embarrassment during anniversary celebrations.
A huge security operation shut down large parts of the normally throbbing city, with thousands of police deployed to keep away demonstrators angry at Beijing’s tightening grip on the freedoms of nearly eight million people.
The lockdown reflects Beijing’s concern that nothing should be allowed to taint the high-profile visit, ahead of a key Communist Party congress later this year which is expected to cement Xi’s position as the most powerful Chinese leader in a generation.
More than 20 activists—including Joshua Wong and young legislator Nathan Law— remained in custody after being arrested for causing a “public nuisance” during a Wednesday night protest.
The three-day visit is Xi’s first since becoming leader in 2013, and comes three years after huge pro-democracy protests crippled the semi-autonomous city for months as “Umbrella Movement” campaigners camped out on thoroughfares.
Xi’s carefully choreographed trip began with his arrival at Chek Lap Kok airport on an Air China plane, where he emerged holding hands with his wife, singer Peng Liyuan, to be welcomed by a marching band and flag-waving children.
A smiling Xi commented on the hot weather and thanked people for waiting in the blazing sun.
“After nine years I am once again stepping on Hong Kong soil. I feel very happy. Hong Kong has always had a place in my heart,” he said in a brief speech on the tarmac.
He added that China would support Hong Kong’s development and improve people’s livelihoods “as it always has” but suggested he felt the city could be doing better by saying he “sincerely wishes Hong Kong can once again achieve splendor.”
Xi said he wanted to ensure Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” set-up, which is enshrined in the handover deal and gives it rights unseen on the mainland, “is on a stable, long-lasting path.”
Pro-democracy campaigners say the system is being eroded and liberties are being squeezed as Beijing interferes in a range of areas, from politics to education and media.
One reporter shouted to Xi on the airport tarmac, asking whether he would free cancer-stricken Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was granted medical parole earlier this week. The question was ignored.
Xi later met unpopular city leader Leung Chun-ying and praised him for his “firm” handling of the city and dealing with what he called “accumulated problems.”
“The achievements over the past five years have been rich, especially in safeguarding national sovereignty and safety,” Xi said.
Xi is staying at a hotel near the convention center on Hong Kong Island’s famed waterfront, which will be the scene of many celebratory events over the coming 48 hours.
The area has been cordoned off by giant water-filled barricades and police have said they are taking “counter terrorism security measures” to ensure Xi’s safety.