Chinese President Xi Jinping swore in John Lee as Hong Kong’s new chief executive on Friday, marking a new era of undemocratic governance in the city once known as China’s economic gateway to the West.
Friday was also the 25th anniversary of the UK’s agreement to return Hong Kong to China in 1997. This agreement promised a guiding principle “one country, two systems” until 2047 – the idea being that even if the city would belong to Beijing, Hong Kongers would continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy from the citizens of the continent. , including a freer press, an independent judiciary and its own local government. However, under Xi’s leadership, China has repeatedly insisted that the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the agreement governing the transfer and protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties, is no longer relevant. , meaning they think Beijing has every right to assert its authority there.
Lee’s swearing-in and Xi’s visit to Kong Kong to preside over it are the symbolic culmination of years of the city’s increasingly authoritarian crackdown – and signal that efforts to curb civil rights there are not going anywhere. will only intensify as the leaders’ ties with Beijing grow stronger.
Lee ran unchallenged after sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s election laws effectively barred opposition candidates from running. He won 99% of a committee vote in May as the only candidate endorsed by Beijing. Lee is a career cop, unlike former CEOs who had expertise in business or public service. He not only backed the controversial 2019 extradition bill that sparked a year of unrest in Hong Kong, but he oversaw police forces accused of using water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas and even live ammunition against demonstrators.
“This really marks a fundamental shift” for the future of Hong Kong, said Eric Yan-ho Lai, Hong Kong Law Fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law. “The choice of John Lee demonstrates that political security remains the top priority” for Beijing.
In a speech on Friday, Xi trumpeted the city’s return to order after the past two years of Covid-19 restrictions and the 2019 pro-democracy protests, though the government secured that order by enforcing its draconian law. on national security, which imprisoned many pro-democracy activists, forced others into exile and silenced the independent press.
“After ups and downs, we deeply recognize that Hong Kong cannot afford to be destabilized,” he said.
How was Xi’s birthday speech different this time around?
Xi’s speech marking the anniversary called on “patriots” – those loyal to Xi and his party – to seize political power in Hong Kong. “No one in any country or region of the world will allow foreign countries or even treacherous forces and personalities to take power,” he said, echoing his 2017 speech marking the 20th anniversary of the handover. from Hong Kong.
“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, to challenge the power of the central government… or to use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely inadmissible,” he said. years ago.
Although both speeches called the dissent sabotage and potentially foreign interference, there was one significant difference between the two: There were no protests this year.
Typically, as Zen Soo writes for The Associated Press, the official anniversary ceremony is followed by a protest march in the afternoon. This time, however, protests were not allowed, with Selina Chen of the Wall Street Journal reporting that police warned even small groups of activists to stay out of sight on July 1 and arrested nine people for allegedly planning to commit sedition.
3. The whole city has only one dominant voice, and the others are eradicated. It is calm and “harmonious” because it has lost its political diversity and its freedom of expression. It is a failure “One country, two systems”, not a success. pic.twitter.com/a1i8laGa7X
— Nathan Law 羅冠聰 (@nathanlawkc) June 30, 2022
The press was also tightly controlled around Xi’s visit – his first trip outside mainland China since the start of the pandemic. Journalists from international media, including CNN and Reuters, have been banned from attending Xi’s speech and other official events for “security reasons”, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA). “With the media unable to send reporters to the field, the HKJA expresses its deepest regret over the rigid arrangements made by the authorities for such an important event,” the HKJA said in a statement.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong (FCCHK) told CNN that “in the past, similar official events have been open for media registration without invitation or verification.” This time, according to CNN, the police rejected the applications of some journalists to cover official events, without further explanation. “FCCHK views these restrictions – applied without detailed explanation – as a serious departure from this stated commitment to press freedom,” they said.
Asked about these changes and other civil rights rollbacks over the past five years, pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip told BBC Newshour on Friday that “freedoms are not absolute”. .
What’s next for Hong Kong – and China
Lee’s tenure – and Xi’s support for him – marks a low point for civil rights and political freedom in Hong Kong. They also show Xi’s contempt for global human rights standards and a geopolitical divide between East and West, Lai said. “Xi Jinping’s vision is not to align China” with these standards, he told Vox, but to assert his dominance in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, which threaten to provide visions alternatives of political and social life. “Hong Kong seems to be the lesson.”
The Chinese government has repeatedly insisted that the Sino-British joint statement is “just a historical document”, Lai told Vox. “But the fact is that the Joint Declaration is a UN-registered treaty.”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss issued a statement on the 25th anniversary of the handover, in which she called the treaty “legally binding” and denounced “the steady erosion of political and civil rights since the imposition of the national security law”.
In a statement on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the National Security Act “has paved the way for an erosion of autonomy and the dismantling of the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents over the past two years”, allowing the detention of dissidents, the repression of independent media, the closure and destruction of cultural and artistic expression and the general weakening of democratic institutions in Hong Kong. “Government officials have been spreading misinformation that the popular protests were the work of foreign actors,” Blinken said in the statement, adding that “they did all of this with the aim of depriving Hong Kong people of what is rightfully theirs. had been promised”.
But measured statements by foreign officials are unlikely to sway Lee or Xi; in fact, Lai told Vox that he believes Lee will “continue to introduce national security laws” and that the future of Hong Kong “depends on Beijing” and its tolerance – or lack thereof – for the Hong Kong’s democratic institutions.
Xi’s speech on Friday prompted Lee to focus on improving Hong Kongers’ living standards, saying “what Hong Kongers want most is a better life, a bigger apartment, more opportunities for business start-ups, better education for their children and better care for the elderly”. ,” A declaration in line with his government’s strategy of blaming social dissatisfaction on economic inequality. Lee, in turn, pledged economic development in the northern part of the city and further integration with cities in the south of the mainland, saying that “development is the golden key to solving social problems and improving people’s lives. people’s livelihoods”.
But more important than economic development for Xi is having a chief executive he can rely on to bring Hong Kong closer to the mainland and stifle any dissent. “Political power,” he said in a speech swearing in the new leadership, “must be in the hands of patriots.”