Tight security contained protesters in Hong Kong tonight as China’s President Xi Jinping led lavish celebrations to mark 20 years since the politically divided city was handed back to China by Britain.
A huge security operation has shut down large parts of Hong Kong, with thousands of police deployed to keep away demonstrators angry at Beijing’s tightening grip on the freedoms of nearly eight million people.
A planned pro-independence rally was cancelled after police banned it from taking place and cordoned off the harbourfront area where defiant protesters had said they would gather.
An official protest zone near the harbourfront convention centre where Xi was guest of honour at an anniversary banquet and variety show was also heavily patrolled as dozens of demonstrators gathered chanting: “End one-party dictatorship!”
Tensions had flared this afternoon as democracy campaigners and pro-China supporters swore and shouted at each other near the convention centre, with police separating the two sides.
Xi praised Hong Kong for its role in China’s economic development as he addressed the banquet, which included lawmakers and business figures, and told Hong Kong citizens to believe in themselves and China.
“Hong Kong has developed from a small unknown fishing village into a large international metropolis, forged by the hard work of generations of Hong Kongers,” he said.
“When the country does well, Hong Kong will do even better,” he added, before raising a glass of red wine for a toast.
Xi had earlier met with business leaders including the city’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, with whom he shared a lengthy handshake.
Earlier today, tanks, missile launchers and chanting troops greeted Xi in a potent display of Chinese military might.
He inspected troops at China’s People’s Liberation Army airfield in rural northern Hong Kong, wearing a black Mao suit and riding an open-top camouflage jeep in the largest military parade since the 1997 handover.
As the jeep slowly drove past row upon row of air, naval and land personnel, Xi shouted “Hello comrades!” as the troops responded “Hello chairman!”
Armoured vehicles topped with missile launchers and military helicopters lined Xi’s path along the airstrip for the eight-minute extravaganza.
There were fears that the PLA would crack down in Hong Kong when it was returned to China, particularly after the brutal crushing of student protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, but it has kept a very low profile.
Today’s parade was a rare display.
The PLA is responsible for defending the city and comprises only mainland troops, with Hong Kong residents unable to serve, but it is barred from interfering in local affairs.
As part of the handover deal, Hong Kong was guaranteed rights including freedom of speech and an independent judiciary for 50 years, but there are concerns those liberties are disappearing as Beijing becomes ever more assertive.
Xi’s three-day visit is his first since becoming leader in 2013, and comes three years after huge pro-democracy rallies crippled Hong Kong.
Student protest leader Joshua Wong and young legislator Nathan Law were among 26 activists detained by police Wednesday night for “public nuisance” over a protest a stone’s throw away from the hotels where Xi and his entourage are staying.
They were released from police custody in the early hours of today after threatening to go to the High Court to petition against their ongoing incarceration.
Police told AFP they had not been charged, but bailed to report back in September.
Activists say they have been followed by police and “thugs” since the protest.
In many major Hong Kong newspapers, coverage of protests was eclipsed by exhaustive accounts of Xi’s itinerary and quotes from him, at a time when the media stands accused of succumbing to pressure from Beijing.
The US State Department urged China to respect civil liberties in Hong Kong, including press freedom, in a statement yesterday.
During his visit Xi has pledged support for Hong Kong and assured that its semi-autonomous system of government is intact.
But he also praised the government for “dealing a blow” to an independence movement that has infuriated Beijing.
Calls for the city to break away from China grew out of the failure of the mass pro-democracy rallies in 2014 to win political reform.