Xi Jinping will make his first trip outside of the Chinese mainland since the start of the pandemic more than two years ago to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Hong Kong chief executive John Lee.
The Chinese president will be at Lee’s side when the former security minister and policeman takes over the helm of the Hong Kong government from Carrie Lam on July 1.
On Saturday, state media agency Xinhua confirmed Xi’s attendance after speculation that he would skip Lee’s signing-in ceremony because of an uptick 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 went to Myanmar for a state trip just days before Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, went into lockdown.
China is the only big global economy that has resolutely maintained a strict zero-Covid stance, leaving the country increasingly isolated as the rest of the world adapts to living with the virus. Xi has joined important world summits, including the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last September, via video link.
That Xi has chosen Lee’s swearing-in ceremony to mark his first trip outside of the Chinese mainland underscores the political significance of the occasion, which also falls on the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China.
This year marks the halfway point of the 50 years of “one country, two systems” autonomy that Beijing guaranteed to Hong Kong, which critics say has been undermined through China’s mounting political interference in the city.
The July 1 anniversary in 2019 was marked by mass protests when demonstrators broke into the city’s legislature to rally against China’s influence over Hong Kong.
The city has changed dramatically since the summer of protests rocked the financial hub, sparking a harsh crackdown on civic and political life in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy politicians, activists and journalists have been rounded up 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 outbreak of the protests.
The announcement coincided with a rise in coronavirus cases in the Chinese territory following the emergence of the Omicron sub-variant BA.2.12.1. The city reported 1,860 infections on Friday.
City authorities have reintroduced the controversial measure of forcing Covid patients and their close contacts into centralised quarantine to curb the spread of the virus.
Hong Kong officials and lawmakers attending the ceremony will quarantine ahead of the swearing-in ceremony to shield the Chinese president from infection.