Xi Jinping will make his first trip outside the Chinese mainland since the pandemic began more than two years ago to attend the swearing-in ceremony for Hong Kong chief executive John Lee.
The Chinese president will be at Lee’s side when the former security minister and police officer takes over as head of Hong Kong government from Carrie Lam on July 1.
On Saturday, state news agency Xinhua confirmed Xi’s attendance after speculation he would skip Lee’s signing ceremony due to a rise in coronavirus cases in the city.
Xi has avoided any travel that could put him at risk of contracting the virus. He has not left China since January 2020, when he visited Myanmar on a state trip just days before Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, went into lockdown.
China is the only major global economy to have steadfastly maintained a strict zero-Covid stance, leaving the country increasingly isolated as the rest of the world adjusts to life with the virus. Xi has joined major world summits, including the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last September, via video link.
The fact that Xi chose Lee’s swearing-in ceremony to mark his first trip outside the Chinese mainland underscores the political significance of the occasion, which also falls on the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China.
This year marks half of 50 years of “one country, two systems” autonomy Beijing has guaranteed Hong Kong, which critics say has been undermined by China’s growing political interference in the city.
The anniversary of July 1, 2019 was marked by mass protests as protesters stormed into the city’s legislature to rally against China’s influence over Hong Kong.
The city has changed dramatically since summer protests rocked the financial hub, triggering a severe crackdown on civic and political life in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy politicians, activists and journalists have been arrested by authorities and prosecuted under a vague national security law imposed by Beijing two years ago.
Xi’s visit will mark his first visit to Hong Kong since the protests broke out.
The announcement coincided with an increase in coronavirus cases in China following the emergence of the Omicron BA.2.12.1 subvariant. The city reported 1,860 infections on Friday.
City authorities have reintroduced the controversial measure of forcing Covid patients and their close contacts into centralized quarantine to curb the spread of the virus.
Hong Kong officials and lawmakers attending the ceremony will be quarantined ahead of the swearing-in ceremony to protect the Chinese president from infection.
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