Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, praised Hong Kong’s rebirth “from the ashes” as he made his first trip outside mainland China in two years in a strict Covid and security bubble.
Mr Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, visited the former British colony yesterday on a two-day trip to mark 25 years since the territory was returned to Beijing.
As they arrived in the city they were greeted by schoolchildren, musicians and city officials – some of the more than 3,000 people who were forced to quarantine and conduct daily PCR tests this week for the visit.
The pupils waved flowers and flags as they chanted “Welcome”, as lion dancers and the city police band performed.
“Hong Kong has withstood severe tests again and again, overcoming challenges one by one,” Mr Xi said in a brief speech. “After the wind and rain, Hong Kong has risen from the ashes.”
He later took a train back to the southern city of Shenzhen and stayed the night in mainland China. He was set to return today for the swearing-in ceremony of John Lee, the new Hong Kong chief executive, and his cabinet.
Mr Xi’s presence in Hong Kong signifies his backing for the city’s intense crackdown on pro-democracy opposition through the 2020 national security law and a draconian zero-Covid policy that has led to thousands being forced out of their homes and into quarantine centres.
The West has criticised the city’s diminishing freedoms as a violation of basic human rights.
In what is likely to be interpreted as a sign of their displeasure, Brian Davidson, Britain’s consul general in Hong Kong, and Hanscom Smith, US consul general, are among top representatives who will not be attending the handover ceremony, sources say.
Liz Truss, the UK foreign secretary, condemned the “steady erosion of political and civil rights since the imposition of the national security law”.
“The United Kingdom’s historic commitment to Hong Kong and its people endures,” she added, saying the UK would “continue to challenge China”.
Before the event, authorities closed off the entire downtown of the city. No-fly zones were imposed over large areas and the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong warned that it was ready for any violence. Journalists from international and local media were banned from attending.
Despite Chinese and Hong Kong flags being strung along streets to create a festive atmosphere, the security restrictions made for a tense mood.
With criticism of Mr Xi now punishable with life imprisonment, many took to social media to vent.
“The president... should have wanted to be considerate towards the people and minimise the effects of these arrangements on the citizens,” said Ray Au Chun Wah, a pan-democrat former councillor. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)
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