China’s Leader Is Leaving His Cocoon for the First Time in 2 Years

President Xi Jinping of China heads to Hong Kong for a two-day visit that is of “utmost symbolic importance.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping at Winter Olympics in Beijing
CHINESE PRESIDENT XI JINPING HASN'T LEFT MAINLAND CHINA IN MORE THAN TWO YEARS. PHOTO: ANTONY WALLACE/AFP

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is setting foot outside mainland China for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020. 

Hong Kong authorities on Tuesday confirmed Xi’s two-day trip to the semiautonomous territory later this week to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule. Police announced security measures including road closures and a citywide ban on the flying of drones.

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Xi will attend a banquet on Thursday and swear in Hong Kong’s new chief executive, John Lee, and his administration the next day. But the Chinese leader is spending the night in between across the border in the mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen, local outlets reported, citing anonymous sources.

The convoluted schedule and the unusually late confirmation of the customary trip, announced just two days before Xi’s expected arrival, have highlighted the complicated calculations behind Xi’s first major trip in two years.

“Xi Jinping attending the celebration is of utmost symbolic importance, as it marks the 25th anniversary of the handover and the ‘victory’ in crushing the opposition,” Ho-fung Hung, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, told VICE World News. “It will look very bad if Xi misses this ceremony. The world could perceive it as a lack of confidence about Beijing’s control of Hong Kong and the pandemic there.”

State media Xinhua News Agency on Saturday announced Xi would attend the upcoming inaugural ceremony, but did not make it clear whether his attendance would be in person or virtual. 

An uptick in local coronavirus cases—which included two top Hong Kong officials—added to the uncertainty. More than two years into the pandemic, China continues to pursue a stringent zero-COVID policy with tight border control that deepens the country’s self-isolation.

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To ensure the Chinese leader would not be infected, Hong Kong officials checked into local hotels on Monday, entering a closed-loop system ahead of the festivities. Reporters covering the events are also required to isolate themselves in hotels beforehand. 

The upcoming trip also marks Xi’s first visit to Hong Kong since Beijing tightened its grip on the city by imposing a sweeping national security law in 2020 to stifle dissent.

It also overhauled the electoral system in the year after, which rid the city’s legislature of any opposition lawmakers and paved the way for the appointment of Lee, a former cop, as the leader of Hong Kong.

While the city used to see major rallies on the symbolic day of the handover, the continuing crackdown has scuttled most public acts of dissent. The League of Social Democrats, one of a few remaining pro-democracy political parties, said it would not hold any protest after its members were recently summoned by national security police.

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