WASHINGTON - Chinese President Xi Jinping gave Hong Kong a stern warning Saturday as he oversaw the swearing in ceremony for the city’s new leader, telling its residents that Beijing will not tolerate attempts to challenge its authority. The warning came even as Xi tried to adopt a softer tone in a speech at the gathering to mark 20 years since the former British colony’s return to China.
"Any attempt to endanger China's sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government …or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible," Xi said.
He did not say what actions might constitute a challenge to Beijing’s authority, but in recent years there has been growing frustration with what many see is China’s stalling on promises to allow its leader to be directly elected. That has led to growing calls for democracy and even independence.
In his speech, Xi said that he was looking to the new administration in Hong Kong to heal the divide in society, create new opportunities and address economic and livelihood issues.
He acknowledged that the implementation of the “one country, two systems” model is facing challenges and that Hong Kong has yet to build a consensus on what he called “some major political and legal issues.”
For those who rallied in the streets on Saturday, it is not Hong Kong that lacks a consensus, but Beijing that is stopping that from happening.
Among those at the rally was one high school student, surnamed Hong. Marching together with others, both young and old, and holding a large black banner that read “I want real universal suffrage,” she said Xi Jinping knows what the Hong Kong citizens want, but he pretends to not understand.
“The people of Hong Kong want freedom, we want [true] one country, two systems, but he has not kept his promises,” she said.
At the rally, protesters had a wide range of demands from direct elections, to the rights of the handicapped and foreign immigrants. Many carried pictures or wore stickers calling for the unconditional release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
Earlier this week, it was learned that Liu, who was serving an 11-year sentence for voicing his views about democracy and political reform, was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He has been released on medical parole, but is still under tight control.
Under the “one country, two systems” model, that was key in negotiating Hong Kong’s handover, the city was given the guarantee that it would continue to enjoy its already established freedoms of the press and speech as well as rule of law. Norms where China still lags far behind.
But some have grown frustrated with what they see is Beijing’s increasing meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs. A massive influx of capital and workers from the mainland to the port city has had an impact on society from jobs and opportunities to skyrocketing housing prices.
Since Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, the port city’s economy has seen tremendous growth, but not all have benefited from the boom. Hong Kong has one of the world’s biggest gaps between rich and poor.
Hong Kong’s new leader, Carrie Lam, who was pre-approved by Beijing, has been tasked with healing the city’s divide and mistrust between the public and the government, both in China and at home. In a speech following her swearing in ceremony, Lam talked about bolstering education, even as she highlighted achievement’s Hong Kong has already made.
Lam said that plans are underway to give priority to nearly $700 million a year in extra funds for education. She also said that Hong Kong would promote the development of innovation technology and creative industries, something that several people we spoke with this week tell us is sorely needed.
Xi’s speech also touched on what he said was the need to enhance education and raise public awareness of the history and culture of the Chinese nation. He also talked about the need for the patriotic education of Hong Kong’s young people.
Of those we spoke with at the rally, all were highly skeptical about the effort to teach Hong Kong residents Chinese history. Some also wondered how it was that China could be suggesting that Hong Kong learn more about history, given that many topics are still taboo to discuss on the mainland.
“We have already overcome the [challenge] of discussing taboo subjects about Chinese history and now today they are talking about putting more Chinese history into our modules, but I don’t believe what they are saying,” said one protester named Job. “They are just doing some brainwashing and want to spread their ideas.”
One father, who joined the rally with his wife and was pushing his daughter in a stroller, said that China’s calls for more Chinese education is a big concern, especially as his child would soon be going to primary school.
“China’s government is trying to control the education methods. They want to change our language. They prefer that we speak Mandarin, but from when we are born, we speak Cantonese and we are very uncomfortable about this,” he said.