In his most high-profile address in Hong Kong since becoming China’s president, Xi Jinping gave a nationalistic history lesson on Hong Kong’s takeover by the British almost two centuries ago—a moment China sees as the start of its “century of humiliation” and that still shapes its dealings with the world today—contrasting that time with the city’s modern-day greatness as part of China.
Xi arrived in Hong Kong this week to attend a series of celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the British handover, as well as to preside over the inauguration of the city’s new leader, Carrie Lam, by convention. His visit came at a tense time for Hong Kong, amid concerns over Beijing’s growing interference with the city’s guaranteed freedoms. Over two dozens democracy activists were detained by police after they staged a sit-in to protest against Xi’s visit.
In the morning of July 1, after Lam and her cabinet members took their oaths, Xi took the podium at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre to deliver a 30-minute speech.
Hong Kong’s destiny had always been closely tied to mainland China, Xi said, until China’s corrupt imperial Qing rulers made lives miserable for its people. “In the early 1840s, the invasion of merely a 10,000-person British expedition forced the Qing government, having 800,000 in troops, to cede territory and pay indemnities, to cede Hong Kong island,” he said.
He went on to tell the history of the British takeover of Kowloon and the New Territories, now part of Hong Kong, after the Qing dynasty was defeated in the two Opium Wars. “China was again and again beaten by countries having far smaller territories and populations than itself… The history of China at that time was filled with the nation’s humiliation and its people’s grief.” (One of the lessons of that time for China has been the importance of military and technological prowess.)
“Twenty years ago today, Hong Kong returned to the motherland’s embrace, washing away the Chinese nation’s hundred years of shame,” Xi said.
These lines could have come out of any Chinese history textbook, and while it’s a regular theme in China’s national life, it’s rarely come up in the kind of speech Chinese top leaders deliver in Hong Kong. In 2012, Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, made no mention of British invasion, or the 19th-century “humiliation,” during his speech before Hong Kong’s previous administration.
Xi’s speech echoes China’s growing nationalism, just as the country is increasingly taking on a global leadership role. During his speech, Xi portrayed the “one country, two systems” formula, which ensures Hong Kong will retain its ways of life and freedoms after the handover, as a “new idea, new path” for the international community to tackle similar sovereignty issues. He didn’t specify which countries could adopt the same approach, though.
”It’s the Chinese people’s new contribution to the world’s development and peace,” he said.
But at least parts of the world think otherwise. Ahead of the anniversary, the UK and the US governments issued statements expressing their concerns about the halted democratic progress and infringements of civil liberties in Hong Kong. They urged China to uphold the “one country, two systems” principle, guaranteed by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. The Chinese foreign ministry hit back to say the bilateral treaty is “a historical document” that is no longer legally binding.
During his speech, Xi stressed that “one country” is the foundation of “two systems”—a message clearly directed at Hong Kong’s growing independence movement.
“Any act that endangers the state sovereignty, challenges the central government’s authority and the authority of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, or that uses Hong Kong to penetrate and destruct the mainland, has crossed the red line, and must not be allowed,” he said.
“Hong Kong’s system of safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests needs to be improved,” Xi said, an apparent reference to the dreaded Article 23 of the Basic Law, which authorizes the local administration to pass laws covering treason and sedition. “The education on national history and national culture needs to be strengthened,” he said, referring to a government campaign pushed back against by protesters who have criticized it as Chinese patriotic “brainwashing.”
Xi boarded a plane to Beijing after the inaugural ceremony. During his first trip to Hong Kong since taking power in 2013, Xi paid a visit to a controversial museum under construction, inspected the Chinese army’s military parade, and attended a grand gala featuring patriotic songs. Of course, no doubt to his great disappointment, he missed the annual march to protest against the lack of full democracy in Hong Kong.
Read Quartz’s complete series on the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover.