HONG KONG – Will he go or not?
Chinese President Xi Jinping kept Hong Kong guessing on Monday about his possible appearance at the 25th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule.
The government has yet to say whether he will be physically present for the events, which include the inauguration of the city’s new chief executive.
The event is hugely symbolic for Xi, who wants to be seen as propelling a “national rejuvenation” as he prepares for an expected third five-year term as head of the ruling Communist Party. Part of that is erasing the legacy of colonialism and what China regards as unequal treaties granting rights to foreign nations imposed during the waning years of the Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1911.
Asked about Xi's attendance plans at a daily briefing Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said he had no additional information and that the reporter should ask the “department responsible," without giving further details.
Xi hasn’t left mainland China since the start of the coronavirus pandemic 2 1/2 years ago, and his exchanges with foreign leaders have been mainly limited to video calls.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, faces a renewed rise in COVID-19 infections after an avalanche of cases this year threatened to overwhelm its hospitals.
China’s official media have said only that Xi will participate in the July 1 commemorations, without describing any travel plans.
Xi gave a speech in Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of its turnover in which he pledged the central government would take a hard line against any challenges to its authority.
Pro-democracy protests in 2019 were followed by a sweeping crackdown that has effectively ended political opposition in the city. As with most matters concerning the ruling Communist Party, the travel plans of top leaders are generally kept secret.
China has stuck to its “zero-COVID” strategy of eliminating outbreaks by mass testing the population and locking down buildings, neighborhoods or whole cities for weeks or even months.
While the Hong Kong commemorations are purely symbolic, they will include the installation Friday of former security chief John Lee, who led a harsh crackdown on the 2019 pro-democracy protests, as the city's chief executive.
After the protests, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law that has jailed, silenced or exiled Hong Kong political activists; curtailed freedoms of expression and assembly; and removed or disqualified people from public office if they were deemed unpatriotic.
Xi's 2017 speech at the 20th anniversary marked a backing away from the “one country, two systems" framework under which Hong Kong was to retain its civil, political and economic liberties for 50 years, until 2047. China has declared the Sino-British Joint Declaration that laid the legal framework for Chinese rule as no longer relevant and has refused to acknowledge Hong Kong's former status as a British Crown Colony, saying it never accepted the treaties that were signed between the United Kingdom and the Qing empire.
Hong Kong political analyst Sonny Lo said he expects Xi to be present for Friday's ceremony, but that he will likely return at the end of the day to Shenzhen just across the border in mainland China for security reasons.
Xi's presence will demonstrate Beijing's confidence in its policies toward Hong Kong, including in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, Lo said.
Xi's government has emphasized the city's integration into the “Greater Bay Area” encompassing much of mainland China's manufacturing and technological bases in Guangdong province, and his message will likely focus in that direction rather than looking at past events, Lo said.
Having dealt with political opposition in Hong Kong, Xi will turn next to the task of unifying with the self-governing island of Taiwan, a close U.S.-ally which China claims as its own territory, Lo said. The sides split amid civil war in 1949 and China routinely flies military aircraft into the island's air defense identification zone to pressure it against taking steps toward formal independence.
China says it wants to bring the sides together through peaceful means, but does not rule out the use of force to achieve that goal.
“So half way to 2047, this visit is particularly significant," Lo said. “The positive overtone will be extremely important because we can expect Beijing to turn to Taiwan, to appeal for some kind of dialogue."