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Tight security as Hong Kong celebrates 20 years since British handover

Demonstrators gathered in one area chanting: “End one-party dictatorship.”

Hong Kong China 20 Years Source: Kin Cheung

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.

An official protest zone near the harbourfront convention centre where Xi was guest of honour at an anniversary banquet and variety show was heavily patrolled as dozens of demonstrators gathered there chanting: “End one-party dictatorship!”.

They demanded the release of cancer-stricken Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who remains on medical parole on the mainland, and that China take responsibility for the brutal Tiananmen crackdown against student democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989.

“Those who are causing a public nuisance are not us. It’s Xi Jinping!” democracy campaigner Joshua Wong told demonstrators.

Hong Kong China 20 Years Pro-democracy activists hold photos of detained activist including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, top, and his wife, Liu Xia, bottom right, during a protest in Hong Kong today. Source: Ng Han Guan

Wong was among 26 activists arrested for “public nuisance” over an anti-China protest Wednesday and released Friday morning.

Police banned a pro-independence rally and cordoned off the harbourfront spot where defiant protesters had said they would gather. Some activists in the area scuffled with pro-China protesters before dispersing.

Tensions also flared Friday 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.

The variety show saw musicians, including star Chinese pianist Lang Lang, perform alongside dancers, drummers and acrobats.

At the end of the night Xi stepped onstage alongside new city leader Carrie Lam, outgoing leader Leung Chun-ying and the show’s performers to sing patriotic song “Ode to the Motherland”.

Military might

Hong Kong China 20 Years Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, sings with Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, fourth left, and chief executive-elect Carrie Lam, fourth right, and Hong Kong artists during the grand variety show as part of a ceremony on the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, in Hong Kong Source: Kin Cheung

Tanks, missile launchers and chanting troops greeted Xi in a potent display of Chinese military might Friday morning.

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.

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 Tiananmen, but it has kept a very low profile.

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.

Hong Kong China 20 Years China's President Xi Jinping makes a toast during a banquet in Hong Kong today. Source: DALE DE LA REY

In many major Hong Kong newspapers, coverage of protests has been 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 Thursday.

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.

- © AFP, 2017

Read: ‘I have to accept my share of responsibility’: Council leader steps down in wake of Grenfell fire>

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