Chinese President Xi Jinping swore in Hong Kong’s new leader on Saturday with a stark warning that Beijing won’t tolerate any challenge to its authority in the divided city as it marked the 20th anniversary of its return from Britain to China.
Police blocked roads, preventing pro-democracy protesters from getting to the harbour-front venue close to where the last colonial governor, Chris Patten, tearfully handed back Hong Kong to China in the pouring rain in 1997.
“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government … or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible,” Xi said.
He also referred to the “humiliation and sorrow” China suffered during the first Opium War in the early 1840s that led to the ceding of Hong Kong to the British, reports Reuters.
Hong Kong has been racked by demands for full democracy and, more recently, by calls by some pockets of protesters for independence, a subject that is anathema to Beijing.
Xi’s words, in a 30-minute speech, were his strongest yet to the city amid concerns over what some perceive as increased meddling by Beijing, illustrated in recent years by the abduction by mainland agents of some Hong Kong booksellers and Beijing’s efforts in disqualifying two pro-independence lawmakers elected to the city legislature.
“It’s a more frank and pointed way of dealing with the problems (in Hong Kong),” said former senior Hong Kong government adviser Lau Siu-kai on Hong Kong’s Cable Television.
“The central government’s power hasn’t been sufficiently respected… they’re concerned about this.”
The tightly choreographed visit was full of pro-China rhetoric amid a virtually unprecedented security lockdown. Xi did not make contact with the people in the street or with any pro-democracy voices, forgoing an opportunity to lower the political heat.
Under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, the financial hub is guaranteed wide-ranging autonomy for “at least 50 years” after 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula praised by Xi. It also specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal.
But Beijing’s refusal to grant full democracy triggered nearly three months of street protests in 2014 that at times erupted into violent clashes and posed one of the greatest populist challenges to Beijing in decades.