HONG KONG – Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Thursday (June 29) he would ensure the smooth running of the “one country, two systems” framework for Hong Kong and for it to be carried forward.
In a speech on the tarmac of the Hong Kong International Airport, Mr Xi said the central government has been a strong pillar for the city in the past two decades and will continue to support its developments.
Mr Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan arrived at the Hong Kong International Airport at noon on Thursday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover to China from Britain.
In his speech, Mr Xi thanked the media for enduring the hot weather for his arrival. He said in Mandarin: “Thank you. Please convey my sincere greetings and best wishes to the people of Hong Kong. It has been nine years, and I am happy to be back in Hong Kong.”
“Hong Kong has lifted my heart," he added.
"In two days, it will mark the 20th anniversary of its return to China. It is a big occasion, a happy occasion for both the country and Hong Kong.”
Mr Xi also congratulated Hong Kong on the milestones it has achieved over the years and gave his blessings to the city.
The President and First Lady were greeted by Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying and his wife Regina Tong Ching Yi, incoming leader Carrie Lam and elder statesman Tung Chee Hwa.
A group of children donning red caps and waving China and Hong Kong flags were also there to welcome the President and his wife.
The visit to Hong Kong is Mr Xi’s first since he became president in 2013. His first visit was in 2008.
During his three-day visit, Mr Xi would be hosted to a banquet by Mr Leung, visit a construction site in the West Kowloon Cultural District where he would witness the signing of a deal between Beijing and Hong Kong on setting up the Hong Kong Palace Museum, inspect the local garrison of the People’s Liberation Army, and attend a variety show.
On Saturday (July 1), Mr Xi will inaugurate the fifth administration of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in a ceremony to be held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Mrs Lam, who was elected the city’s new leader on 777 votes from a 1,194-member Election Committee in March this year, will be sworn-in by Mr Xi on Saturday.
The President’s visit comes at a time when the city is seeing rising discontent among Hong Kongers over the lack of a free election system and rising socio-economic problems such as income disparity and unaffordable housing.
Street protests, calling for greater democracy, have became a common sight as fears of China’s interference in the city’s affairs grow. Last year (2016), the police had to handle 13,158 protests and rallies, more than double that in 2015.
The city has been decorated with thousands of China and Hong Kong flags to welcome Mr Xi. An extensive display of fireworks that will run for 23 minutes, costing a record HK$12 million (S$2.1 million), has also been planned for the occasion.
However, Hong Kongers do not seem to be in a celebratory mood as police expect mass protests to greet the president. Security operation will be in full swing during the three-day visit, with police deploying close to 10,000 officers each day, supported by a massive air-land-sea operation.
Mr Xi’s convoy of vehicles will be escorted by the elite police motorcycle squad. The public will not have access to roads near where the major events would be held in Wan Chai and Admiralty districts.
On the eve of Mr Xi’s arrival, police arrested at least 26 radical pro-democracy activists at the Golden Bauhinia Square where Mr Xi will watch China’s national flag raised on Saturday (July 1).
The protesters, who initially planned to stayed overnight at the venue, had draped a black banner over the Golden Bauhinia statue, a gift from Beijing to mark the handover in 1997, in Wan Chai. The area has since been cordoned off.
In a joint declaration signed with Britain in 1984, China promise Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy unseen in the mainland.
But incidents such as those involving the mysterious disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers specialising in books with salacious gossip about China’s leaders and their reappearance in China, have stoked fears of China tightening its grip on the city.