Hong Kong, July 1 (ANI): Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday presided over tightly choreographed celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Britain defended the crackdown on dissent.
He arrived in a city vastly transformed from three years ago, when millions took to the streets in the biggest challenge to Beijing's rule in decades, reported New York Times (NYT).
"Hong Kong's 'true democracy' started after the handover. China has acted 'for the good of Hong Kong' and there is 'no reason at all to change' One Country, Two Systems," said Xi Jinping.
He said that Hong Kong's "true democracy" started after the city's 1997 handover to China from Britain. Xi insisted that democracy is flourishing despite a years-long political crackdown that has silenced dissent.
"After reuniting with the motherland, Hong Kong's people became the masters of their own city... Hong Kong's true democracy started from here," he added.
After anti-government protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019, posing the biggest challenge to China's rule over the city in years, Beijing moved swiftly to crush dissent, reported NYT.
The authorities arrested, imprisoned or detained thousands of people, including dozens of leading opposition figures, including lawmakers, activists, academics, and newspaper editors.
Since June 2019, more than 10,000 people have been arrested and nearly 3,000 people convicted on protest-related charges, including rioting, unlawful assembly and arson, according to police statistics.
International human rights groups and several western governments have decried the crackdown as a severe deterioration of civil liberties in the city and urged the authorities to release political prisoners and restore freedom of speech, assembly, and other rights. Hong Kong's leadership has denied repressing freedoms.
Massive security is in force despite the once annual demonstrations on the anniversary being silenced. Parts of the city have been closed off and media coverage has been tightly restricted.
Meanwhile, Xi installed a handpicked former security official John Lee, who was sworn in Friday as Hong Kong's next chief executive, and led the crackdown on protests, reported NYT.
His selection in a process tightly controlled by China sends a clear message. After the enactment of tough security law and a sweeping crackdown on the political opposition, Beijing believes safeguarding China's interests remains the top priority for Hong Kong's leadership.
"Political power must be in the hands of patriots," Xi said in a speech after overseeing the new government's swearing-in ceremony.
"No country or region in the world will allow unpatriotic or even traitorous or treasonous forces and figures to take power," added the top leader.
Hong Kong and Chinese officials attended a brief ceremony where a police honour guard raised the flags of China and Hong Kong to mark the anniversary.
But the pomp and ceremony were a stark contrast to the relative quiet on the streets, to many residents of Hong Kong, the handover anniversary and Xi's visit held little significance besides a day off, reported NYT.
"The central government doesn't have to do much for Hong Kong. Just let Hong Kong fix things by itself. It's a free economy right? It wasn't under much governance before," said Joeson Kwak, a 33-year-old interior design contractor who was in the district of Wanchai getting breakfast. "I don't feel anything special today. I'm happy I don't have to go to work today."
Xi's visit is as much a message intended to reinforce Beijing's rule over Hong Kong to the city's 7.5 million residents as it is a message of defiance to the Western governments that had denounced his crackdown.
The United States, Britain and other nations have accused China of breaking its promises to allow Hong Kong to preserve its protections for individual rights for 50 years under an arrangement known as one country, two systems, reported NYT.
Subduing Hong Kong also has personal significance for Xi. It will help burnish his standing among the Communist Party elite at a key moment as he pursues a third five-year term in office, which he is widely expected to secure later this year.
To local activists, July 1 has been an anniversary of pivotal demonstrations. But a combination of pandemic restrictions and the political crackdown has largely eliminated such gatherings.
One leftist group, the League of Social Democrats, had continued to mark significant dates with small demonstrations of just four people, which is technically allowed under social distancing rules, reported NYT.
Members of the group have been under constant surveillance and their organization was threatened with closure if they tried to demonstrate, said Avery Ng, the group's secretary-general.
"It is just like China," he said. (ANI)