When Xi Jinping lands in Hong Kong on Thursday for the first time since becoming China’s president, he will step into a deeply divided city uncertain of its future.
The visit marks 20 years since Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain and comes at a time when many fear the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms are being lost to an ever more assertive Beijing.
Protests are expected during Xi’s three-day trip, which will be shielded by huge security and culminate in the inauguration of new city leader, Carrie Lam.
Pro-democracy campaigner Joshua Wong, who led mass “Umbrella Movement” rallies in 2014 calling for political reform in an unprecedented challenge to Beijing, says he believes Hong Kong is at a crossroads.
“The uniqueness of Hong Kong and the political status of my city are under threat,” 20-year-old Wong told AFP.
He wants a public vote on sovereignty in 2047, when the 50-year handover agreement guaranteeing Hong Kong’s liberties and way of life expires.
Such calls for self-determination or even full independence for Hong Kong grew out of the failure of the 2014 protests to win concessions on democratic reform and have infuriated Beijing.
“What we hope is to let everyone get the right of referendum to decide the future of this city,” Wong said.
Residents were given no say in whether Hong Kong should be returned to China in 1997.
– Seeking compromise –
For the past 20 years, Hong Kong has been governed under a “one country, two systems” deal which grants it rights unseen on the mainland, including freedom of speech, an independent judiciary and a partially elected legislature.
Rule of law is seen as key to its role as a gateway between China and the rest of the world.
However, a string of incidents, including the disqualification of two pro-independence lawmakers and alleged abductions by mainland security agents, have sparked concerns the tide is turning.
Beijing and local officials insist Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is secure.