Xi Jinping swears by John Lee. from Hong Kong

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday sworn in John Lee as Hong Kong’s new chief executive, marking a new era of anti-democratic governance in the city once known as China’s economic gateway to the West.

Friday also marked the 25th anniversary of the UK’s return agreement Hong Kong to China in 1997. That agreement promised a ‘one country, two systems’ principle until 2047 – the idea was that although the city would belong to Beijing, Hong Kongers would continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy from the citizens from the mainland, 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 is doing the best it can. has the right to assert its authority there.

Lee’s swearing in and Xi’s visit to Kong Kong to chair it are the symbolic culmination of years of increasingly authoritarianism against the city – and indicate that efforts to curtail civil rights there will only grow as the ties of the leadership with Beijing become stronger.

Lee ran unchallenged after radical changes to Hong Kong’s electoral laws effectively barred opposition candidates. He won 99 percent of the vote in the committee in May as the only candidate approved by Beijing. Lee is a career police officer, unlike previous chief executives who had business or civil service expertise. Not only did he support the controversial 2019 extradition bill that sparked a year of unrest in Hong Kong, he oversaw police accused of using water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas and even live ammunition against protesters.

“It really marks a fundamental shift” for the future of Hong Kong, Eric Yan-ho Lai, the Hong Kong Law Fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, told Vox. “The election of John Lee shows that political security remains a top priority” for Beijing.

In a speech Friday, Xi proclaimed the city’s return to order after the past two years of Covid-19 restrictions and the pro-democracy protests of 2019, though the government achieved that order by enforcing its draconian national security law, which jailed many pro-democrats. -democratic activists, others forced into exile and the independent press silenced.

“After ups and downs, we strongly recognize that Hong Kong cannot afford to be destabilized,” he said.

What was different about Xi’s anniversary speech this time?

Xi’s birthday speech called for “patriots” – those loyal to Xi and his party – to assume political power in Hong Kong. “No one in any country or region of the world will allow foreign countries or even insidious forces and figures to seize power,” he said, echoing his 2017 speech marking the 20th anniversary of Hong’s handover. Kong.

“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 inadmissible,” he said. years ago.

While both speeches framed dissent as sabotage and possible 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 birthday ceremony is followed by an afternoon protest march. This time, however, protests were not allowed, with Selina Chen of the Wall Street Journal reporting that on July 1, police warned even small activist groups to stay out of sight and arrested nine people for alleged plans to commit sedition.

The press was also heavily scrutinized over Xi’s visit – his first trip outside mainland China since the start of the pandemic. Reports from international outlets including CNN and Reuters were: was denied access to Xi’s speech and other official events for “security reasons,” according to the Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA). “Since the media is unable to send journalists to the scene, the HKJA expresses its deepest regret at the rigid reporting arrangements that the authorities have put in place for such a major 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 to media registration without invitation or vetting.” According to CNN, this time the police rejected requests from some reporters to report on the official events, without further explanation. “The FCCHK views these restrictions — enforced without detailed explanation — as a serious departure from that declared commitment to press freedom,” they said.

Asked about those changes and other rollbacks of civil rights over the past five years, pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip told the BBC’s Newshour program Friday that “liberties are not absolute”.

What’s next for Hong Kong — and China

Lee’s tenure — and Xi’s support for it — marks a low for civil rights and political freedom in Hong Kong. They also show Xi’s disregard for global human rights standards and a growing geopolitical divide between east and west, Lai said. “Xi Jinping’s vision is not to bring China into line with those standards,” he told Vox, but to assert dominance in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, which threaten to offer alternative visions 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, calling the treaty “legally binding” and decrying the “steady erosion of political and civil rights since the imposition of the National Security Act”.

In a statement Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the national security law “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. crackdown on independent media, 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 popular protests were the work of foreign actors,” Blinken said in the statement, adding that “they did all this in an effort to rob Hong Kongers of what was promised to them.”

But measured statements from foreign officials are unlikely to influence Lee or Xi; Lai even told Vox that he believes Lee “continues to enact national security laws,” and that Hong Kong’s future “depends on Beijing” and its tolerance — or lack thereof — of Hong Kong’s democratic institutions.

Xi’s speech on Friday forced Lee to focus on improving the living standards of Hong Kongers, claiming that “what Hong Kong people desire most, a better life, a bigger apartment, more opportunities to start a business, better education for their children and better care for the elderly. ,” a statement consistent with his government’s strategy of attributing social discontent to economic inequality. Lee, in turn, pledged economic development in the northern part of the city and further integration with the southern mainland cities, saying, “Development is the golden key to solving social problems and improving people’s livelihoods.”

But more important than economic development for Xi is having a chief executive he can count on to bring Hong Kong closer to the mainland and quell any dissent. “Political power,” he said in a speech adjuring the new leadership, “must be in the hands of patriots.”