HONG KONG — Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong on Thursday ahead of the 25th anniversary of Britain’s handover and after a two-year transformation bringing the city back more closely under Communist Party control. It is Xi’s first trip outside mainland China in nearly 2½ years.
Fans waving Chinese and Hong Kong flags chanted “Welcome, welcome! Warm welcome!” as Xi’s train arrived at the station.
Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, were greeted by city leader Carrie Lam as they got off the train. Xi greeted supporters who greeted him on the platform, then greeted John Lee, the city’s new leader, and Leung Chun-ying, a former city manager, along with other officials.
“I am very happy to be in Hong Kong,” Xi said in a speech at Hong Kong West Kowloon Station. “It’s been five years since I last visited, and in the past five years I’ve been paying attention and thinking about Hong Kong.”
Under Xi’s leadership, China has reshaped Hong Kong over the past two years, cracking down on protest and free speech and introducing a more patriotic curriculum in schools. The changes virtually eliminated voices of opposition and caused many to leave.
Hong Kong and nearby Macau are special administrative regions that are governed separately from the rest of China, known as Mainland China.
Xi has not left China since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. China has maintained a strict “zero-COVID” policy which aims to keep the virus out. Xi’s last overseas trip was to Myanmar in January 2020.
At the station, Xi said Hong Kong had overcome many challenges over the years and had “risen from the ashes” with “vigorous vitality”.
“As long as we stick to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, Hong Kong will definitely have a brighter future and make new and greater contributions to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” he said.
Later Thursday, Xi is expected to visit the Hong Kong Science Park before meeting pro-Beijing politicians and tycoons, then attending a closed-door banquet hosted by Lam, the outgoing chief executive, according to local newspaper South China Morning Post. .
Xi and Peng will likely spend Thursday evening in the Chinese city of Shenzhen – 15 minutes from Hong Kong by high-speed train – and return to the city on Friday morning to witness the July Day events.
On Friday, Xi will attend a ceremony marking Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, and officiate an inauguration ceremony for the new government led by new leader Lee.
Ahead of his arrival in Hong Kong, thousands of guests – including senior officials, lawmakers and diplomats – checked into quarantine hotels earlier this week and took daily nucleic acid tests as part of coronavirus precautions.
Police also tightened security, designating safe zones and road closures as well as a no-fly zone for Friday.
More than 10 journalists from local and international media had their applications to cover the events of July 1 rejected earlier this week for “security reasons”, with the government saying it was “balancing the need for the work of the media and security requirements”.