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25 years ago, Britain handed Hong Kong back to China


Twenty-five years ago, Britain handed Hong Kong back to China. And today, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was in the territory to mark the occasion. When it was handed back, the city was promised a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. Well, we're officially halfway there, and that autonomy is very much in question. To help us understand where things stand, we're joined by NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. John, walk us through why Xi Jinping was there. And what did he have to say?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Yes, Xi Jinping was there to attend a joint event. It was a commemoration of the anniversary, the 25th anniversary, and the swearing in of Hong Kong's new chief executive, John Lee. Xi's appearance there was significant for a couple of reasons. First of all, he had not been outside of mainland China for the entire pandemic until this trip. So he obviously felt that this, you know, highly symbolic event was important. He was in Hong Kong five years ago for the 20th anniversary of the handover.

And the city in those five years has seen a ton of change and been through a lot. In 2019, there were huge marches and often violent protests against the government. In 2020, Beijing imposed a national security law in Hong Kong and changed the political landscape. COVID-19 has hammered the economy. Today, in his speech, Xi Jinping really seemed to drive home one point, and that was that Hong Kong's political development was - is basically going to be on Beijing's terms. Here's a clip from his speech through a translator.


PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) People have learned the hard way that Hong Kong must not be destabilized and cannot afford to see chaos. There is extensive consensus that no time should be lost in Hong Kong's development and that all interference should be removed.

RUWITCH: Yes, Xi said that everyone in Hong Kong needs to understand and support the fact that the Communist Party runs China, that Beijing ultimately has jurisdiction over the territory, even though it has autonomy to a certain extent, and that only, quote, unquote, "patriots" can administer Hong Kong.

MARTÍNEZ: And you said there was a symbolic significance here. Remind us, why is this day so important to China?

RUWITCH: Yeah, this day is important, you know, because, you know, Hong Kong's return to China in 1997 was this gigantic milestone that put an end to what China calls the century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers and in the words of the party, you know, standing up as a nation, really. Hong Kong's also been a critical piece in helping the country become wealthier and stronger over the past 25 years. It's played an outsized role as a portal for trade and for financial transactions between China and the rest of the world.

MARTÍNEZ: And a lot has changed, though - right? - in 25 years.

RUWITCH: Yeah, for sure. I mean, so 25 years ago, I was actually there for the handover. And I went to the border to witness Chinese troops coming across in armored personnel carriers and trucks for the first time. There was a lot of concern around this because, remember, it was less than a decade before then that Chinese troops crushed pro-democracy protests, you know, in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. And that concern - there was sort of a bigger related question underpinning it, which is whether or not China would live up to its promises to preserve Hong Kong's way of life.

I was there a few weeks ago in Hong Kong. It feels very different in some respects. It feels the same in some, different in others. People are wary about talking about politics at newspaper stands. You know, there are newspapers you just can't get anymore because they've folded. Pro-democracy politicians used to be accessible and happy to talk. Many of them are now in jail, though, and others are afraid to meet.

MARTÍNEZ: So it sounds like China hasn't lived up to its promises.

RUWITCH: Good question. There's no doubt that individual freedoms have been curtailed in Hong Kong over the past couple years. You know, Xi Jinping says, though, that he - you know, that promised high degree of autonomy is still there and that, in his words, has been implemented properly, that the one country, two systems model for Hong Kong has been great. You know, but critics say the pillars of what made Hong Kong different from other Chinese cities are being dismantled piece by piece, things like freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.

MARTÍNEZ: How do people in Hong Kong overall feel about these changes?

RUWITCH: It's a very divided city right now. You know, many businesses and others welcome some stability after the past few years. But there are a lot of people who are quietly unhappy with the changes. They're mostly reluctant to talk about it openly or on the record. And that's going to be a big challenge for the new chief executive, John Lee. He has strong backing from Beijing, but trust in the Hong Kong government is very low. The divisions in society are becoming entrenched. So rebuilding that trust with the Hong Kong people is a big task for him, and it's not going to be easy.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's John Ruwitch. Thanks a lot.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.