UK and US leaders have criticised China’s erosion of freedoms and rights in Hong Kong, as the territory marks 25 years since its handover from Britain.
After Xi Jinping began his first visit to the city since 2017, British prime minister Boris Johnson and US secretary of state Antony Blinken said Beijing had failed to respect the “one country, two systems” arrangement agreed under the deal that ended British colonial rule in 1997.
Vowing not to “give up” on Hong Kong, Johnson said: “It’s a state of affairs that threatens both the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers and the continued progress and prosperity of their home.”
Blinken said Friday was supposed to be the halfway mark of 50 years of promised autonomy under one country, two systems, “yet it is now evident that Hong Kong and Beijing authorities no longer view democratic participation, fundamental freedoms, and an independent media as part of this vision.”
“Authorities have jailed the opposition … raided independent media organisations … weakened democratic institutions, delayed elections,” Blinken said. “They have done all of this in an effort to deprive Hongkongers of what they have been promised.”
Saying a strict security law imposed in Hong Kong by Beijing in 2020 had led to an “erosion of autonomy,” he said: “We stand in solidarity with people in Hong Kong and reinforce their calls for their promised freedoms to be reinstated.”
On Thursday, Xi told crowds in Hong Kong – during a highly choreographed visit where opportunities for dissent have been stifled and media coverage heavily restricted – that the region had “risen from the ashes”.
“My heart and that of the central government have been with our compatriots in Hong Kong,” he said, according to a translation by the South China Morning Post. “In the past few years, Hong Kong has gone through various severe challenges one after another, and has defeated them.
“After the wind and rain, Hong Kong has risen from the ashes, and showed strong vibrancy.
“As long as we stick to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, Hong Kong will certainly have a brighter future and will make new and bigger contributions to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” he said.
On Friday, Xi will swear in the next chief executive of the territory, John Lee, a former security head who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
The day began with a flag raising ceremony at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The brief ceremony lasted about 20 minutes and took place amid a typhoon warning. While Hong Kong activists have rallied outside the flag raising ceremony in the past, they were warned by national security police not to protest this year.
Xi did not attend the flag-raising event, with media reporting he stayed overnight across the border in Shenzhen after arriving in Hong Kong on Thursday. He is due back in the financial hub early on Friday for the swearing in.
Lee has pledged to unite the city for “a new chapter”, while also promising an even more aggressive approach to counter “fearmongering and badmouthing” by critics.
Johnson said he would seek to continue 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”. He said Britain’s immigration route for holders of British national (overseas) passports last year had attracted 120,000 applications.
British foreign secretary Liz Truss echoed Johnson’s comments, and said: “Authorities have stifled opposition, criminalised dissent and driven out anyone who can speak truth to power.
“The United Kingdom’s historic commitment to Hong Kong and its people endures. That is why we continue to challenge China for breaching the legally binding commitments it signed up to under the Joint Declaration.
“We have called out their conduct on the world stage and stood together with our G7 partners in condemning the steady erosion of political and civil rights and Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
Australia also criticised China for curbing the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong.
“Australia remains deeply concerned by the continuing erosion of Hong Kong’s rights, freedoms and autonomy, two years since the imposition of the National Security Law,” foreign minister Penny Wong said.