There is no reason to change Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" formula of governance, Chinese President Xi Jinping said on a rare visit to the global financial hub after swearing in the city's new leader, John Lee, on Friday.
Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, with Beijing promising wide-ranging autonomy, unfettered individual rights and judicial independence at least until 2047.
China's critics accuse authorities of trampling on those freedoms, unavailable on the authoritarian mainland, with a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing on the city in 2020 after mass pro-democracy protests the year before.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday that China had failed to meet its handover commitments.
China and Hong Kong reject the accusations, saying the law "restored order from chaos" so that the city could prosper.
Xi said the "one country, two systems" formula was successful under China's "comprehensive jurisdiction."
"For this kind of good system, there is no reason at all to change it. It must be maintained over the long term," Xi said.
"After experiencing wind and rain, everyone can painfully feel that Hong Kong cannot be chaotic, and must not become chaotic again ... Hong Kong’s development cannot be delayed again, and any interference must be eliminated."
Xi added China would support Hong Kong's role as an international finance and trade hub.
At the swearing-in ceremonies, all officials, including Xi, wore masks and did not shake hands.
Former police officer Lee, sanctioned by Washington over his role in implementing the security law, takes charge as the city is facing an exodus of people and talent amid some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in the world.
Authorities deployed a massive security force, blocking roads and the airspace around the picturesque Victoria Harbour, where the last colonial governor, Chris Patten, tearfully handed Hong Kong back to China at a rain-drenched ceremony in 1997.
Red lanterns, Chinese and Hong Kong flags, and posters declaring a "new era" of stability decorated districts across the city.
Xi did not attend the traditional flag-raising ceremonies on Friday, with media reporting he stayed overnight across the border in Shenzhen after arriving in Hong Kong on Thursday.
Xi's visit to Hong Kong is his first since 2017, when he swore in outgoing leader Carrie Lam and stayed in the city for the duration of his trip. His overnight whereabouts this time, and the reasons why he may have chosen Shenzhen, have not been officially confirmed.
Hong Kong recorded more than 2,000 daily COVID cases on Thursday, levels which would prompt tight restrictions in any mainland city. China is alone among major countries in choosing to eliminate outbreaks as soon as they occur, at all costs.
Some analysts see Xi's visit as a victory tour after Beijing tightened its control of Hong Kong. After arriving in the city on Thursday, Xi said the city had overcome its challenges and "risen from the ashes."
"What happened over the past 25 years has proven that the future and destiny of Hong Kong must be in the hands of the patriots who would cry proudly for being Chinese," nationalist tabloid Global Times, published by the Communist Party's official People's Daily, wrote in an editorial. "The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is irreversible and Hong Kong's tomorrow will be even brighter."
The handover anniversary has traditionally seen thousands march to voice grievances over everything from sky-high property prices to Beijing's grip over the city, including during Xi's last trip to Hong Kong.
On July 1, 2019, during the anti-government protests, demonstrators stormed and ransacked the city's legislature.
No protests are taking place this time, with the most outspoken opposition politicians and democracy activists either in jail or self-exile.
"It is the end of an era, it is the end of 'one country, two systems," exiled Hong Kong activist Samuel Chu told Reuters from Oslo, Norway. "This is a city that is no longer recognizable."
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