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On the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British rule, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that the renewed order will bring a bright future to the city, even if Beijing’s security crackdown and increasing control have cast doubt on its international position.

Friday’s celebrations began with a small crowd of Chinese officials, asked to ‘stand solemnly’ as strong winds whipped their faces, watching Hong Kong police raise the territory’s Bauhinia flower flag next to the national and red flag of Victoria.

Xi, who is making his first trip outside mainland China since the pandemic began, did not attend the outdoor ceremony but instead marked the occasion by saying Hong Kong had “entered a new phase where it went from chaos to control and from control to prosperity. »

Xi Jinping takes ‘victory lap’ in Hong Kong, as locals watch warily

The display of national pride comes as the city struggles to maintain its position as an Asian cultural and financial powerhouse, in part because Beijing’s micromanagement of the city has undermined confidence in its future as an open and attractive and business environment with rule of law.

After the inauguration of John Lee, the former top homeland security official and new chief executive, Xi outlined his vision for Hong Kong after being rescued from the ‘humiliation of forced surrender’ to Britain , adding that “true democracy” only came after the territory returned to Chinese rule.

This version of events is very much at odds with criticism from pro-democracy activists and Western governments in Hong Kong who accuse XI of bringing back free speech and democratic rights to the city through the imposition of nationwide legislation to national security in 2020.

In his speech, Xi signaled that his approach is here to stay. The “One Country, Two Systems” model created by former Chinese chief Deng Xiaoping during transfer negotiations is a system that “has no reason to change and must persevere for the long term”, he said.

The wording, once seen as a promise to uphold Hong Kong’s political freedoms, has increasingly meant that “one country” defense comes first. Beijing has made clear that perceived threats to national security, such as calls for democracy and protests against Beijing’s encroachment, will not be tolerated.

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Hong Kong politicians, Xi stressed, must be loyal to Beijing. No country “would allow forces or individuals who are not patriotic, or even betray their nation, to hold political power,” he said.

Arriving in the city by high-speed rail on Thursday, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong said Hong Kong had ‘stepped away from the ashes’, although many a younger generation of the former British colony have expressed concern about their rapid disappearance Freedoms and dotted hopes for a more democratic future.

Xi promised to “listen and take care” of young people and respond to their difficulties in finding work. “We fervently hope that every young person in Hong Kong will join the ranks of those building a beautiful Hong Kong,” he said.

After a large turnout in protests against Beijing’s growing control, many young Hong Kongers have fled overseas, either for fear of being accused of national security violations or simply because they see no future in a town no longer resembles the place where they grew up.

In a video posted on Twitter, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that Beijing is not complying with its commitments made during the transfer. “This is a situation that threatens both the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers and the continued progress and prosperity of their home,” he said.

Strict security and coronavirus checks meant that only selected clients attended the ceremony. At least 10 journalists were excluded from the event. Those who were cleared had to undergo five days of PCR testing and two days of quarantine to enter the ‘closed loop’.

Strict coronavirus prevention rules under Beijing’s “zero covid” policy have also been a key source of uncertainty for the international business community. The government still requires seven days of hotel quarantine for residents and non-residents.

According to the local European Chamber of Commerce, nearly half of European businesses plan to leave Hong Kong this year. The city’s unemployment rate from February to April hit a 12-month high of 5.4%. A survey this year by the University of Hong Kong found that around 1 in 10 suffer from depression, citing job loss and the pandemic as causes.

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On Thursday, Xi met the city’s police force in a dedicated ceremony, a rarity for Chinese leaders visiting the city. During the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2019, police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and sudden, often brutal arrests of suspicious protesters made force a primary focus of local criticism. But Beijing has consistently indicated endorsement of the heavy-handed approach.

In a sign of the growing similarities between Chinese law enforcement in Hong Kong and the mainland, Friday also marked the official adoption of the Chinese army’s goose march as the police parade of the town.

“I think hindsight for a long time there was a misunderstanding that ‘one country, two systems’ was equal, but in fact it’s not equal,” outgoing CEO Carrie Lam said in an interview this week. with Phoenix Media, referencing Beijing Position that the first part of the wording takes precedence.

For a year after taking office, Lam added, she “hadn’t learned the deeper meaning” of Xi’s speeches about the primacy of “one country” and Beijing’s “red lines” laid out to protect national security.

It took the protests to “realize that President Xi had from the start who gave us very clear advice; Only by following it could Hong Kong be an important part of the nation,” Lam said.

Yu reported in Hong Kong.