HONG KONG — Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong on Thursday ahead of the 25th anniversary of the British handover and after a two-year transformation bringing the city more tightly under Communist Party control. It is Xi's first trip outside of mainland China in nearly 2 ½ years.
Supporters waving Chinese and Hong Kong flags chanted "Welcome, welcome! Warm welcome!" as Xi's train pulled into the train station.
Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, were welcomed by city leader Carrie Lam as they alighted the train. Xi waved at supporters who welcomed him on the platform, and later greeted John Lee, the city's incoming leader, and Leung Chun-ying, a former chief executive of the city, along with other officials.
"I'm very happy to be in Hong Kong," Xi said in a speech at the Hong Kong West Kowloon train station. "It's been five years since I last visited, and in the past five years I've been paying attention to and thinking about Hong Kong."
Under Xi's leadership, China has reshaped Hong Kong in the past two years, cracking down on protest and freedom of speech and introducing a more patriotic curriculum in schools. The changes have all but eliminated opposition voices and driven many to leave.
Hong Kong and nearby Macao are special administrative regions that are governed separately from the rest of China, known as the Chinese mainland.
Xi has not left China since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. China has maintained a strict "zero-COVID" policy that aims to keep the virus out. Xi's last overseas trip was to Myanmar in January 2020.
At the train station, Xi said Hong Kong has overcome many challenges over the years and had been "reborn from the ashes" with "vigorous vitality."
"As long as we stick to the 'one country, two systems' framework, Hong Kong will certainly have a brighter future and will make new and bigger contributions to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people," he said.
Later Thursday, Xi is expected to visit the Hong Kong Science Park before meeting with pro-Beijing politicians and tycoons, and then attend a closed-door banquet hosted by Lam, the outgoing chief executive, according to local newspaper South China Morning Post.
Both Xi and Peng are likely to spend Thursday night in the Chinese city of Shenzhen — 15 minutes away from Hong Kong by high-speed train — and return to the city on Friday morning to attend the July 1 events.
On Friday, Xi will attend a ceremony marking Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997 and officiate an inauguration ceremony for the new government led by incoming leader Lee.
Ahead of his arrival in Hong Kong, thousands of guests — including top officials, lawmakers and diplomats — checked in to quarantine hotels earlier this week and have been taking daily nucleic acid tests as part of coronavirus precautions.
Police have also ramped up security, designating security zones and road closures as well as a no-fly zone for Friday.
More than 10 journalists from local and international media outlets had their applications to cover the July 1 events rejected earlier this week on "security grounds," with the government saying it was "striking a balance between the need of media work and security requirements."