HONG KONG: When Xi Jinping lands in Hong Kong on Thursday for the first time since becoming China’s president, he will step into a deeply divided city uncertain of its future.
The visit marks 20 years since Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain and comes at a time when many fear the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms are being lost to an ever more assertive Beijing.
Protests are expected during Xi’s three-day trip, which will be shielded by huge security and culminate in the inauguration of new city leader, Carrie Lam.
Pro-democracy campaigner Joshua Wong, who led mass “Umbrella Movement” rallies in 2014 calling for political reform in an unprecedented challenge to Beijing, says he believes Hong Kong is at a crossroads.
“The uniqueness of Hong Kong and the political status of my city are under threat,” 20-year-old Wong told Agence France-Presse.
He wants a public vote on sovereignty in 2047, when the 50-year handover agreement guaranteeing Hong Kong’s liberties and way of life expires.
Such calls for self-determination or even full independence for Hong Kong grew out of the failure of the 2014 protests to win concessions on democratic reform and have infuriated Beijing.
“What we hope is to let everyone get the right of referendum to decide the future of this city,” Wong said.
Residents were given no say in whether Hong Kong should be returned to China in 1997.
For the past 20 years, Hong Kong has been governed under a “one country, two systems” deal which grants it rights unseen on the mainland, including freedom of speech, an independent judiciary and a partially elected legislature.
Rule of law is seen as key to its role as a gateway between China and the rest of the world.
However, a string of incidents, including the disqualification of two pro-independence lawmakers and alleged abductions by mainland security agents, have sparked concerns the tide is turning.
Beijing and local officials insist Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is secure.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Regina Ip, leader of the New People’s Party, told AFP she thought the semi-autonomous system was “holding up well”.
Hong Kong’s economic growth was better under China than it would have been under Britain, added legislator Felix Chung, head of the pro-establishment Liberal Party.
“The central government gave us a lot of freedoms—they didn’t do too much to control Hong Kong,” he said.
Both Chung and Ip agree political divisions need to be addressed, but argue that requires compromise.
“If you want to have democracy in the sense of cutting Beijing out of the picture, that’s a non-starter,” said Ip.
Lam has pledged to heal rifts but is already being painted by critics as a China stooge.
She has questioned whether it is the right time to revisit the reform debate that triggered the Umbrella Movement.
The protests kicked off after a Beijing-backed plan for leadership elections—promised in the handover deal—said candidates must be vetted first.
Slammed by activists as “fake universal suffrage” it was voted down in parliament by pro-democracy lawmakers.
Lam was chosen by a Beijing-friendly electoral committee, as were her predecessors. Although there are democrats in the legislature, it is still fundamentally weighted towards Beijing.