It was an anniversary to Beijing’s taste: Undisturbed by demonstrations, China’s President Xi Jinping and his followers celebrated the 25th anniversary of the return of the former British crown colony to China on Friday in Hong Kong. For the second year in a row, the Guard of Honor marched at the flag ceremony not in the British manner, but with the goose-step of Chinese soldiers. Hong Kong’s democracy movement, on the other hand, once again had nothing to celebrate.
A protest march, as it used to be on July 1st, was out of the question. The authorities had urgently warned against gatherings. Police officers patrolled large parts of the city center.
Since its return to China on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong was supposed to be governed under the “one country, two systems” principle. Hong Kongers were also promised at the time that they would be able to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” and many political freedoms by 2047. However, in response to ongoing anti-government protests, Beijing introduced a strict security law in the financial metropolis two years ago and crushed the democracy movement.
The day before, shortly after his arrival, he made it clear how satisfied Xi Jinping is with the result. The metropolis has mastered “major challenges” and has “risen from the ashes,” said the Chinese head of state on his first visit in five years. For the trip, Xi left mainland China for the first time since the beginning of the corona pandemic.
Hong Kong has enjoyed “true democracy” since it was returned to China,” the president said in another speech on Friday, in which he also backed the “one country, two systems” system of government. However, this must be implemented “correctly”. The President also reiterated that Hong Kong can only be governed by “patriots”.
Critical observers paint a different picture of the situation. Since the enactment of the controversial security law, many have only spoken of “one country, one system”. Hong Kong has experienced “one blow after the other” in the past two years, said Katja Drinhausen from the China Institute Merics in Berlin.
Arrests of activists and opposition politicians, electoral and educational reforms and the dissolution of liberal media and civil society organizations are just the most important examples. “Beijing definitely sees itself as confirmed in the course it has taken and will encourage the Hong Kong government to introduce further repressive measures,” said Drinhausen.
Just three years ago, hundreds of thousands had regularly protested on the streets. Images of violent clashes went around the world. “Now, at least superficially, calm has returned – and the Chinese government wants to ensure that it stays that way,” said Drinhausen.
Renata Alt (FDP), Chairwoman of the Bundestag Committee for Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, was also critical. “25 years after Hong Kong was handed over to communist China, it shows how brutally the freedoms and human rights of Hong Kong residents have been betrayed,” Alt said. It is bitter to see how the once democratically governed, vibrant city is now under authoritarian control from Beijing suffocate. Pro-democracy activists must be offered asylum in the EU, Alt demanded.
The US on Thursday denounced an “erosion of autonomy” from Hong Kong. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was now clear that leaders in Hong Kong and Beijing would no longer see “democratic participation, fundamental freedoms and independent media” as part of the “one country, two systems” principle.
Blinken voiced US “solidarity” to Hong Kong residents. The freedoms promised to the people must be restored.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged continued support to Hong Kong. “We are not giving up on Hong Kong,” Johnson said in a video on Twitter. “25 years ago we made a promise to the area and its people and we intend to keep it.”
John Lee, whom he sworn in as the new head of government on Friday, fits into Xi Jinping’s picture of a stable Hong Kong. The city’s former security chief is considered a loyal follower of Beijing. The security law and “improvements” in the electoral system have taken Hong Kong “from chaos to prosperity,” Lee said in his inaugural speech. He vowed to further advance the city’s integration with mainland China.
The mood is not only gloomy in Hong Kong’s democracy movement. For many companies, too, the metropolis is no longer what it used to be. Foreign chambers of commerce are complaining about the corona measures, which are as strict as on the Chinese mainland.
Without lengthy hotel quarantine, travel to what was once the freest economic metropolis in the world is no longer possible. Also, Hong Kongers do not come to mainland China without quarantine. At least for President Xi Jinping, these rules did not apply. To protect him and his wife Peng Liyuan from the virus during the celebrations, the around 3,000 Hong Kong guests had to isolate themselves beforehand.