HONG KONG (AFP, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Hong Kong has overcome its challenges and "risen from the ashes", China's President Xi Jinping said on Thursday (June 30), as he arrived in the city to celebrate 25 years since its return to Chinese rule.
He arrived at West Kowloon Station on Thursday afternoon with his wife, Peng Liyuan, after taking the city’s high-speed rail link from mainland China. He was greeted by outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam, as well as local school children waving flags and a traditional lion dance.
“Hong Kong has withstood severe tests again and again, overcoming challenges one by one,” Xi said. “After the wind and rain, Hong Kong has risen from the ashes.”
This is Mr Xi's first known trip outside the mainland in more than two years, amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
China hasn’t released Mr Xi’s itinerary, but he was expected to stay overnight in the neighbouring Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen, as Hong Kong experiences it worst Covid-19 surge since April with some 2,000 cases on Wednesday.
The trip had prompted a massive security effort ahead of celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the city's handover to China.
Government leaders have been forced into a closed-loop system, parts of the city shut down, and multiple journalists barred from Friday events that will showcase the Communist Party's control over the city after a political crackdown that dismantled a democracy movement and crushed dissent.
A banquet hosted by outgoing leader Carrie Lam that Mr Xi was expected to attend on Thursday evening was cancelled due to virus concerns, the Sing Tao newspaper reported.
The Chinese leader will swear-in Mrs Lam's successor as Hong Kong chief executive, Mr John Lee, who is a former police official and security minister.
Those coming into Mr Xi's orbit during the Hong Kong trip, including the highest-ranking government officials, have been made to limit their social contacts, take daily PCR tests and check into a quarantine hotel in the days leading up to the visit.
"To play safe, if we are going to meet the paramount leader and other leaders in close quarters, I think it is worthwhile to go into the closed-loop arrangements," veteran pro-Beijing politician Regina Ip told AFP.
Authorities have moved to eliminate any potential source of embarrassment during Mr Xi's time in the city, with national security police making at least nine arrests over the past week.
The League of Social Democrats, one of Hong Kong's few remaining opposition groups, said it will not demonstrate on July 1 after national security officers spoke with volunteers associated with the group.
And Hong Kong's top polling group announced that it would delay publishing the results of a survey that gauged government popularity "in response to suggestions from relevant government departments after their risk assessment".
The July 1 handover anniversary in Hong Kong has traditionally been marked by tens of thousands taking to the streets in peaceful rallies every year.
But mass gatherings have essentially disappeared in Hong Kong over the past few years under a mixture of coronavirus restrictions and a security crackdown aimed at eliminating any public opposition to China's uncompromising rule over the city.
Authorities have tightly restricted media coverage of Mr Xi's visit, with the government barring multiple journalists from covering events around it.
As of Wednesday, AFP has confirmed that 13 local and international journalists were denied accreditation to cover the handover celebrations.
Two AFP reporters were among those rejected, with a government official citing unspecified "security reasons".
The Hong Kong Journalists Association expressed "deep regret" at the rejections and said the quarantine and testing requirements reporters were made to undergo made staff substitutions difficult.
The government told media the decision was "a balance as far as possible between the needs of media work and security requirements".
Police on Tuesday announced large-scale road closures on Hong Kong island and temporarily banned the flying of drones in the entire city, citing security concerns.
Select sites across the financial hub have also been closed off, including the high-speed rail terminus, a performance venue for Chinese opera and Hong Kong's Science Park.
A number of Science Park workers told AFP they had not received any notification about a visit by Mr Xi but said they were told to work from home on Thursday.
Authorities have also sought to portray an image of public support for the celebrations, including with mass displays of Hong Kong and China flags draped across dozens of public housing estates.
At one estate, a 26-year-old resident surnamed Chan complained about small flags that had been placed outside every floor at a stairwell. "It is unnecessary and too much," he told AFP.
Tony, a worker at the estate, said the display would be better if it was done by residents voluntarily.
"Are we really embracing this ideology so much?" he told AFP.
"People may be repelled... if it is overdone."