As Chinese leader Xi Jinping left Hong Kong Friday after a rare visit to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the city's handover from Britain, reactions to his speech ranged from deeming it "reassuring" to terming his stance "delusional."
The Chinese Communist Party places great importance on anniversaries, and the trip presented Xi with an opportunity to emphasize China's authority over Hong Kong after three years of political upheaval there.
"Xi's speech and language reiterated the political message to Hong Kong since the national security law," political scientist Kenneth Chan of Hong Kong Baptist University told AFP.
"Beijing now exercises total control over the city through the loyalists."
Since China imposed a national security law on the city following huge pro-democracy protests that engulfed the city in 2019, dissent has been stifled in the once politically vibrant city.
Xi's insistence that democracy was flourishing despite the years-long political crackdown was met with scorn by those who had been most affected by Beijing's tightening grip on the city.
Ted Hui, a former opposition lawmaker who fled overseas in 2020 after being arrested multiple times, said Xi's remark that "true democracy" only began after the handover was "a lie."
"As early as the 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong people had started our own democracy movement, and begun to develop our civil society," he told AFP.
He said that under British rule the city had never had full democracy, but that now "we have lost both the formality and the substance of democracy, particularly after the implementation of the national security law."
One of his former colleagues, Emily Lau, said that "true democracy never started in Hong Kong — neither before or after 1997."
She agreed that now, the city had "lost both freedoms and democracy."
'Clear and solid'
After waving Xi off at a high-speed train station, new Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said the visit had been "inspiring."
Xi said repeatedly that One Country, Two Systems — the governance model agreed upon by Britain and China under which the city would keep some autonomy and freedoms — was working well and did not need to change.
Lee said Xi's remarks were a "very clear and very solid" declaration.
The sentiment was echoed by Hong Kong's Law Society, which put out a statement saying Xi's "clear reassurances and inspirational directions on the well-being of Hong Kong and our integration into the overall development of our country were encouraging."
Hui was scathing of the idea that the governance model was working well.
"I think it's delusional to say that Hong Kong can continue to maintain its unique advantages under the current system," he said. "Because Hong Kong's uniqueness used to lie in its liberty, its autonomy in policy making."
On Hong Kong's streets, wet from thunderstorms that pummeled the city all day Friday, 46-year-old Jonathan Yeung said Xi's position that One Country, Two Systems had no reason to change was "laughable."
"He was behind the biggest changes," he said.
"(Xi's) speech was just a to-do list for John Lee, I don't think he was addressing Hong Kongers like me."
A jewelry shop owner surnamed Wan, 44, said he thought it was good that Xi had set out clear priorities for the next administration.
He agreed with Xi's sentiment that Hong Kong "could not afford to fall into chaos."
"The past few years were very tough, no matter one's politics and occupation," Wan said.
In his speech, Xi put particular emphasis on young people, saying that authorities "must enhance their national pride and sense of ownership."
A man surnamed Lee, a 19-year-old university student, was unimpressed by Xi's exhortations.
"When he says more focus on youth, that only means more nationalistic agenda being pushed in schools," he told AFP.
"He doesn't care what young people themselves want."