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China's President Xi Jinping, right, looks on as Hong Kong's incoming Chief Executive John Lee is sworn in as the city's new leader, during a ceremony to inaugurate the city's new government in Hong Kong Friday, July 1, 2022, on the 25th anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China.Selim Chtayti/The Associated Press

When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of the territory’s handover to China, he warned residents any efforts “to challenge the power” of Beijing were “absolutely impermissible.”

Hours after he left on July 1, 2017, tens of thousands marched to call for greater democracy, many screaming defiance at a leader they refused to recognize.

Five years on there was nothing of the sort. No threats from Mr. Xi, no sign of resistance to his rule. Overseeing a ceremony for the 25th handover anniversary on Friday, Mr. Xi stood in a Hong Kong transformed and neutered by his hardline policies and the years-long crackdown on dissent that followed his previous visit.

Speaking after the swearing-in of the city’s new chief executive – former police officer and security czar John Lee – Mr. Xi brought none of the fire of five years ago. But for a few points, his words could have been delivered in almost any Chinese city, hailing residents’ contribution to economic development and “national rejuvenation.”

Mr. Xi praised “one country, two systems,” the principle under which Hong Kong transferred from British to Chinese rule with most of its economic and political freedoms in tact, but it is he who has done more than anyone else to curtail Hong Kong’s autonomy and bring its policies in line with the mainland.

Hong Kong has entered a “new stage of moving from chaos to governance,” Mr. Xi said, pointing to a national security law imposed on the city by Beijing in 2020, as well as subsequent electoral reforms that restricted all political positions to “patriots.”

“What the people of Hong Kong desire most is a better life, a bigger apartment, more business startup opportunities, better education for their children, and better elderly care,” Mr. Xi said, in the clearest direction to Mr. Lee’s incoming administration.

Beijing has previously expressed frustration at consecutive Hong Kong governments’ failure to address problems with housing and other social issues, which they blame for the discontent that drove anti-government protests in years past.

Mr. Xi also said the local government must “uphold stability and harmony,” adding “people have learned the hard way that Hong Kong must not be destabilized and cannot afford to see chaos.”

In his own address, Mr. Lee promised to “build a more caring and inclusive Hong Kong filled with vibrancy, hope and development opportunities.”

Both men were speaking inside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Watching them were about 1,300 specially invited guests, all of whom had to quarantine and undergo multiple COVID-19 tests.

They were enclosed in a vast security ring stretching out for blocks, with large, water-filled barricades blocking streets and police checkpoints at every corner. When The Globe arrived at an outdoor press area opposite the convention centre, entry required passing through two security checks and temporarily handing over an umbrella, a symbol of the pro-democracy movement.

Few reporters were able to get inside the hall itself. The Globe and Mail, along with multiple other international and local outlets, was not invited at all, while some publications that were able to seek accreditation nevertheless had journalists blocked on unspecified grounds.

Members of the public were in even shorter supply, with streets around the convention centre largely abandoned, as was the case in neighbouring Admiralty district, where Hong Kong’s parliament and government offices sit.

Admiralty was the traditional destination for Hong Kong’s annual pro-democracy marches on July 1, but for the second-consecutive year, no such demonstration was possible. A heavy police presence was in place around government offices, while football pitches in Victoria Park, where demonstrators traditionally gathered before the march, were cordoned off.

Speaking earlier this week, police said no group had sought permission to stage any event. The Civil and Human Rights Front, which traditionally organized the July 1 marches, disbanded last year following intense pressure from the authorities; most of its leaders are in jail. The handful of prominent activists who remain free and in Hong Kong said they were warned against any activities this week.

Avery Ng, a member of the League of Social Democrats, one of the few pro-democracy parties that remains active, said his home was searched by national security police ahead of Mr. Xi’s arrival. He posted a video of himself online with bars superimposed on the screen, saying “we are all in a big prison now.”

In statements marking the handover anniversary, Western governments criticized Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong and urged China’s leaders to respect guarantees they made ahead of 1997.

“Over the past two years, we have seen freedom of speech and the peaceful expression of alternative views suppressed,” said Mélanie Joly, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The national security law “has eliminated meaningful political opposition” and caused the erosion of media freedoms, she added.

Her British counterpart, Liz Truss, noted that under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which set the stage for the handover, Beijing agreed “to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and rights and freedoms.”

Instead, she said, there has been “a steady erosion of political and civil rights,” adding the authorities “have stifled opposition, criminalized dissent and driven out anyone who can speak truth to power.”

Chung Ching Kwong, a Hong Kong activist living in exile in Germany, criticized what she said was years of “empty hand wringing” by the international community over Hong Kong.

“Hong Kongers and many other victims of Beijing’s policies stand alone on the front line of fighting against a brutal, expansionist regime,” she added. “The free world has never honoured our sacrifices.”

Mr. Xi left Hong Kong a few hours after the swearing-in of Mr. Lee, just as tropical storm Chaba began soaking the city. He departed via the West Kowloon Railway Station, the opening of which in 2018 was controversial because it involved setting up an area where Chinese law applied rather than that of Hong Kong.

Thanks to Mr. Xi, such distinctions appear increasingly meaningless.

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