John Lee sworn in as Hong Kong leader as city marks handover

Chinese leader Xi Jinping oversees ceremony on first trip outside mainland China since the pandemic began.

John Lee was sworn in on Friday as Hong Kong’s next leader, opening a new chapter for the former British colony as it marked 25 years since its return to Chinese rule.

The ceremony was overseen by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who travelled to Hong Kong on Thursday in his first trip outside mainland China since the pandemic began.

In his inaugural address, Lee promised to solve Hong Kong’s problems one at a time while promoting the city’s image overseas.

Lee faces the difficult task of restoring the international financial centre’s reputation after some of the world’s longest COVID-19 restrictions and a draconian national security law pushed Hong Kongers and expatriates alike to leave in droves.

Lee, a former security chief, is one of several top Hong Kong officials sanctioned by the United States for undermining the Chinese territory’s autonomy and freedoms.

Strict social distancing measures were in place for the ceremony and attendees were required to quarantine in hotels earlier this week while also undergoing daily COVID tests.

Friday also marks the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China but the mood was muted amid a heavy security presence and rainy weather due to a nearby typhoon.

Signs proclaiming a new era of “stability, prosperity, and opportunity” have been erected around Hong Kong for the occasion, but many residents believe the city is losing its distinct way of life as Beijing cracks down on almost all displays of dissent.

Under the terms of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, Beijing promised to grant the city a high degree of autonomy and preserve political rights and freedoms not found on the mainland until at least 2047 – an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.”

But since the imposition of a draconian national security law in June 2020, authorities have practically wiped out the city’s once boisterous pro-democracy movement and forced the closure of dozens of civil society organisations and media outlets.

Beijing introduced a draconian national security law in Hong Kong following mass pro-democracy protests in 2019 [File: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]

In years past, July 1 saw large demonstrations by Hong Kongers protesting infringements on their political rights and autonomy by Beijing.

This year marks the first time no public activities will be held, following a similar ban on events to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4.

National security police arrested nine people over the past week and searched the houses of members of the League of Social Democrats, one of Hong Kong’s few remaining opposition groups.

The group was also told by police not to protest and have reportedly been followed.

The crackdown is expected to continue under Lee, one of several Hong Kong officials sanctioned by the United States for undermining the city’s autonomy and democratic rights.

As Hong Kong’s former security chief, Lee has been instrumental in the crackdown on opposition figures. His upcoming cabinet includes four other high-ranking officials under sanctions.

Lee is expected to introduce more legislation to curb dissent in Hong Kong, including a local national security law.

On Thursday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson lamented the changes that have taken place in the city.

“We made a promise to the territory and its people and we intend to keep it, doing all we can to hold China to its commitments,” he said.

In the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concerns over the “erosion of autonomy” in the city, saying: “We stand in solidarity with people in Hong Kong and reinforce their calls for their promised freedoms to be reinstated.”

Xi insisted on Thursday that “one country, two systems” would guarantee “long-term stability and prosperity in Hong Kong.“

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