Xi Jinping, China’s president, stands ahead of a meeting with Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s incoming chief executive, not pictured, in Hong Kong, China. (Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg)

Hong Kong Faces Reality of Strong China 20 Years From Return

(Bloomberg) -- President Xi Jinping is set to end his landmark visit to Hong Kong with a further promise of continued prosperity -- as long as the city embraces China’s rise.

Xi’s remarks at a ceremony Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to China will cap a three-day trip rich in symbolism and heavy on security. While in town, the president has boosted investment ties that keep the Asian financial hub humming, appealed to young people disaffected with Beijing’s leadership and surveyed the military might that guarantees Chinese rule.

Hong Kong Faces Reality of Strong China 20 Years From Return

The itinerary demonstrated for Hong Kong the confidence that Xi has sought to display at home and abroad as China’s economic clout gives it less reason to hide its strength and greater ability to shrug off international pressure. Still, since the last Chinese president visited five years ago, Hong Kong has been racked by doubts about the city’s growth model, protests for greater democracy and the emergence of a small independence movement. 

“An increasingly prosperous motherland serves as a source of strength for Hong Kong to overcome difficulties and challenges,” Xi said at a banquet of the city’s elite on Friday night, in a possible preview of his Saturday speech. “It also presents opportunities for Hong Kong to break new ground, foster a new driving force and create new space for development. When our country does well, Hong Kong will do even better.”

To underscore his point, Xi came bearing gifts. The Hong Kong stock exchange
announced that foreign investors would from Monday gain access to China’s $10 trillion debt market through a local bond connect. The Chinese and Hong Kong governments had earlier signed a pair of trade pacts giving local firms preferential investment access on the mainland.

Hong Kong Faces Reality of Strong China 20 Years From Return

Hong Kong’s economy is now equivalent to just 3 percent of the national economy, compared with 19 percent two decades ago, emboldening Chinese policy makers who see political dissent as an obstacle to growth. China has shown an increased willingness to impose its will on Hong Kong, despite an agreement with the British to preserve the city’s “high degree of autonomy” until 2047.

“If you look at Xi’s agenda, it is coming closer to his goal of returning China to a position if preeminence,” said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “Xi’s Hong Kong trip has enhanced that message.” 

Hong Kong Faces Reality of Strong China 20 Years From Return

More announcements could come after 9 a.m. Saturday when Xi attends a swearing-in ceremony for new Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Earlier, Lam presided over a reenactment of the flag-raising first performed in 1997 when the British ended their 156-year rule.

Intense security has kept dissidents away from Xi so far. Scuffles broke on Saturday, when a group of demonstrators including pro-democracy lawmaker “Long-hair” Leung Kwok-hung attempted to carry a mock coffin to the conference center, while calling for greater democracy, according to the Apple Daily. Joshua Wong, a former student activist who now runs his own political party, was detained by police, Radio Television Hong Kong reported.

China is battling skepticism over its promise to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy -- including free speech and independent courts -- under a framework called “one country, two systems.” The failure to hold direct elections for the city’s leader and recent Chinese interventions in the city’s legal affairs have energized young activists who led mass democracy protests almost three years ago and now advocate “self-determination.”

“The only way out for us in the next three decades is to continue the bargaining power of us and the bargaining power of civil society,” Wong told Bloomberg Television on Friday. He supports a referendum to determine the city’s political status after 2047.

Hong Kong Faces Reality of Strong China 20 Years From Return

Military Procession

Xi has attempted to show his concern for the city’s youth with a visit to a teenager recreation camp run by the police, which he praised for “instilling legal awareness from early on.” His wife, Peng Liyuan, a famous People’s Liberation Army singer, has visited a kindergarten.

Xi was also expected to inspect some of the proliferating monuments to Hong Kong’s integration with China, including possibly a high-speed rail station and the 50-kilometer (31-mile) bridge system that will link the city to the former Portuguese colony of Macau and Zhuhai, on the mainland. He already toured a site where a local offshoot of Beijing’s Palace Museum is being built.

Hong Kong Faces Reality of Strong China 20 Years From Return

Earlier Friday, Xi inspected the local PLA garrison from the back of a jeep, in a scene reminiscent of his September 2015 military parade in Beijing. He was accompanied by his top general and top diplomat. The country’s first aircraft carrier is scheduled to make an initial port visit to the city in the coming days.

Ting Wai, an international relations professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said Xi’s gestures sent a doubled-edged message. “This is the top leader saying he cares about Hong Kong and that he will support you in the future, but at the same time he wants to show who is in power.”