China's president Xi Jinping in landmark visit to Hong Kong

Pro-democracy demonstrators stand on the Golden Bauhinia statue draped with a banner that reads "Free Liu Xiabo! Free all political prisoners! Universal suffrage now!" after storming the sculpture - given to Hong Kong by China to mark the 1997 handover - in front of the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Hong Kong on June 28, 2017
PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - President Xi Jinping arrives in Hong Kong on Thursday (June 29) to mark 20 years since it was handed back to China by Britain, a trip that has already riled democracy activists in the politically divided city.

The three-day visit is his first since becoming leader in 2013 and comes at a time when there are growing fears that Beijing is threatening semi-autonomous Hong Kong's freedoms.

Leading pro-democracy campaigners including Joshua Wong were arrested on Wednesday night after staging a protest outside the convention centre that will host some of the anniversary events, a stone's throw away from the hotel where Xi will be staying.

The surrounding area has been cordoned off by giant water-filled barricades and police have said they are taking "counter terrorism security measures" to ensure Xi's safety.

Protesters are likely to be restricted to zones well away from the official celebrations.

Animosity towards Beijing has grown in recent years, particularly among young people.

The failure of mass rallies in 2014 to win democratic reform has sparked a new wave of "localist" activists, keen to emphasise Hong Kong's own identity, with some calling for a full split from the mainland.

Since the return to China in 1997, the city has been governed under a "one country, two systems" deal that gives it rights unseen on the mainland, including freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.

But there are now concerns Beijing is trampling the agreement by interfering in a range of areas, from politics to education and media.

Chinese authorities and local officials insist Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status is intact, but have railed against calls for self-determination or independence.

Xi Jinping in Hong Kong 20th anniversary of handover

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan arrive at the airport in Hong Kong, China, ahead of celebrations marking the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, June 29, 2017.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after his arrival at the airport in Hong Kong, China, ahead of celebrations marking the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, June 29, 2017.
  • China's President Xi Jinping shakes hands with outgoing Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during a meeting in a hotel in Hong Kong, China, June 29, 2017.
  • China's President Xi Jinping speaks with outgoing Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during a meeting in a hotel in Hong Kong, China, June 29, 2017
  • Police escort Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of 20th anniversary of the handover from Britain to China, in Hong Kong, China June 29, 2017.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping is welcomed by Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam upon Xi's arrival in Hong Kong, China June 29, 2017.
  • Chinese president Xi Jinping, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam clap after watching two Chinese opera performers during a visit to Hong Kong's West Kowloon district, in Hong Kong June 29, 2017.
  • People follow the performance as pro-China supporters gather as a part of celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China June 29, 2017.
  • A policeman keeps watch as pro-China supporters gather along a road during a visit by China's President Xi Jinping in Hong Kong on June 29, 2017.
  • People hold candles as they attend a vigil for terminally-ill Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo in Hong Kong on June 29, 2017. This coincides with President Xi Jinping's arrival in Hong Kong to mark 20 years since its return to China by Britain, with activists under arrest as authorities sought to avoid embarrassment during anniversary celebrations
  • An activist holds a poster of terminally-ill Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo on the sidelines of a vigil for him in Hong Kong on June 29, 2017.
  • Soldiers march at a People's Liberation Army (PLA) base in Hong Kong as part of events marking the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, June 30, 2017.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects troops at the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison as part of events marking the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China June 30, 2017.
  • China's President Xi Jinping inspects People's Liberation Army soldiers at a barracks in Hong Kong on June 30, 2017.
  • Soldiers shout as they prepare for the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping (unseen) at the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison as part of events marking the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China June 30, 2017.
  • Hong Kong's People's Liberation Army soldiers prepare to parade prior to the arrival of Chinaese President Xi Jinping in Hong Kong on June 30, 2017.
  • Members of Chinese People's Liberation Army based at the Hong Kong garrison prepare to parade prior to the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hong Kong on June 30, 2017.

Xi's visit will culminate in the inauguration of new city leader Carrie Lam.

She has promised to heal divisions but has already alarmed critics by saying children should be instilled with Chinese identity from a young age and suggesting that independence activists could face punishment under the law.

Lam was appointed by a pro-China committee although her main opponent, former finance secretary John Tsang, consistently topped opinion polls.

A Beijing-backed framework for what would have been the city's first public leadership election sparked the protests of 2014 after it said candidates must be vetted.

Since then, the debate on promised democratic reforms has stalled with Lam saying she is unsure the time is right to revisit it.

She has said she wants to focus on livelihood issues instead, in a city where the wealth gap is at a record high and many cannot afford decent housing, fuelling tensions.

Xi's trip will also include a visit to China's People's Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong, which defends the city.

There were fears ahead of the handover that the army would be heavyhanded, particularly after the brutal crushing of democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But the Hong Kong garrison has kept a very low profile in the past 20 years.

Xi is due to fly out of Hong Kong on Saturday, after Lam's inauguration.

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