HONG KONG — Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong 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 at the train station waving Chinese and Hong Kong flags chanted "Welcome, welcome! Warm welcome!" as Xi's train pulled into the station on Thursday.
Xi is expected to speak about Hong Kong's future at a ceremony Friday marking the return of the former British colony to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997. He also is expected to officiate an inauguration ceremony for the new government led by incoming leader John Lee on Friday.
Under his 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 Macau 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.
Both Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, 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.
Ahead of his arrival Thursday, 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."