HONG KONG — Thousands attended an annual pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong on Saturday as President Xi Jinping ended his first visit since taking power in 2013 by warning that threats to the stability of China would not be tolerated.
Hong Kong was marking 20 years since its handover from Britain to China, where it has a degree of autonomy as special administrative region.
Protest organizers said some 60,000 people took to the streets in the sweltering heat, a significant decrease from last year when 110,000 turned out. Police put the turnout on Saturday at 14,500.
The decline in participation reflected the fact that Hong Kong’s new Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, had yet to make a political blunder, said Au Nok-hin, an organizer with the United Civil Rights Front, which put on the march.
Alvin Hung, a 27-year-old solicitor at the rally, had another theory. “Maybe this year people are starting to feel hopeless,” he told dpa.
Lam was elected Hong Kong’s chief executive in March and sworn into office at a ceremony on Saturday in which Xi spoke.
Xi, who had departed by the time the protest started, warned that there was a “red line” when it came to challenging China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.
“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the Central Government … or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible,” Xi said.
Xi said the “one country, two systems” policy that allows Hong Kong to retain its legal, governance and capitalist economic structures separate from those of mainland China was “advanced first and foremost to realize and uphold national unity.”
Xi called on Hong Kong to implement systems to safeguard national security and to implement a patriotic national education curriculum for its youth.
He said Hong Kong “needs to enhance education and raise public awareness of the history and culture of the Chinese nation.”
Hung took exception to the president’s words. “It’s wrong to assume that young people hate China, because they won’t understand China,” he said.
“It’s because we know it all too well. There’s a saying: familiarity breeds contempt.”
The future of such open defiance and protests will be in question should the new government pass a controversial National Security law that would prevent treason, sedition and subversion against the Central People’s Government.
Plans for that law were shelved in 2003 after 500,000 people took to the streets on July 1 to protest.
Lam’s term will be divisive as it is likely that Beijing will press her to pass the National Security law.