China’s president Xi Jinping has warned that power in Hong Kong “must be administered only by patriots” while navigating a “new stage of development, from chaos to order” as he presided over the swearing-in ceremony of the territory’s new chief executive, John Lee.
“No other places or countries in the world would allow those who are not patriotic, or even those who commit treason, to take the helm of their governments,” the Chinese president added on Friday in his first big speech in Hong Kong since his last visit to the territory five years ago.
Hong Kong was rocked by large and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in 2019, which were brought to heel by a strict new security law.
“Hong Kong and Macau should maintain their capitalist system going forward for a long period of time, with a high level of autonomy,” Xi said. “But all Hong Kongers should be able to respect and safeguard the fundamental socialist system of the nation.”
In his first speech as chief executive, Lee said that the city had overcome “foreign forces’ interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs that threatened the national security of the country”.
“With staunch support from the central government, Hong Kong is able to start over,” he added.
Xi pledged his administration’s “support for Hong Kong’s status as a financial and trading centre”. But neither he nor Lee immediately revealed any new policies to boost Hong Kong’s economy — or any relaxations in the seven-day central quarantine requirement for arriving travellers that many executives have lobbied for.
The inauguration, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of the former UK colony’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, was held a day after Xi arrived in Hong Kong on his first visit outside mainland China since the Covid-19 pandemic began in Wuhan two and a half years ago.
But Xi’s visit on Thursday was relatively brief, and he took a train back across the border to spend the night in Shenzhen, according to people briefed on his itinerary. He returned to Hong Kong on Friday morning for the swearing-in of Lee, a career policeman and security official who played an instrumental role in crushing the pro-democracy protests that swept the city.
The unusual arrangement reflected Beijing’s concerns about a recent increase in Covid cases in Hong Kong as well as potential safety risks despite the heavy security presence deployed across the territory over recent days.
Xi did not join Lee and his predecessor, Carrie Lam, for a traditional outdoor flag-raising ceremony, which took place despite strong winds and a typhoon warning.
None of Lee’s four predecessors, who included a tycoon, two career civil servants and a pro-Beijing loyalist, was able to serve the two full, five-year terms allowed under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Lee’s ministerial team was also sworn in by Xi, after which they trooped up to the president one by one and bowed before him.
At least 10 journalists from local and foreign media outlets were barred from official events owing to “security concerns”, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, accused Beijing on Thursday of “[threatening] the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers” in a video clip posted on Twitter, while US secretary of state Antony Blinken criticised Beijing and Hong Kong authorities for ignoring “democratic participation and fundamental freedoms, and an independent media” in a statement.
“Twenty-five years ago we made a promise to the territory and its people, and we intend to keep it,” Johnson said. “Doing all we can to hold China to its commitments, so that Hong Kong is once again run by the people of Hong Kong, for the people of Hong Kong.”
Accountancy firm BDO, colonial-era conglomerates Swire and Jardine Matheson and casino groups Wynn Macau and Melco were among the companies that extended congratulatory messages for Xi’s visit in advertisements placed in local pro-Beijing newspapers on Friday.
Additional reporting by William Langley, Cheng Leng and Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong