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Hong Kong Celebrates 20th Anniversary Of Transfer To China


We're going to turn to Hong Kong now, which is marking the 20th anniversary of Great Britain's handover of the city to China. China's government celebrated the event with a massive fireworks display...


MARTIN: ...39,888 fireworks, to be exact. That and a visit from President Xi Jinping, which was less well-received. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Hong Kong to tell us more. Rob, thanks so much for joining us.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So what was the atmosphere there like today?

SCHMITZ: Well, it was it was kind of crazy. I mean, there were a lot of people out on the streets today. This is an annual day of protest for Hong Kong. It's an annual pro-democracy rally that thousands of people usually take part in, and that was the case today. It's a rally that winds through the middle of the city.

It's been, you know, three years since people here protested against Chinese rule, and feelings are still pretty raw. And this year's event took on a deeper meaning because it came on the heels of this official visit from President Xi.

MARTIN: So this was his first visit as president. What was his message, and how did it go over?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. He came here, and he didn't really waste any time. You know, during the swearing in of the city's new chief executive this morning, he warned people here that challenging China's sovereignty over the city was, quote, "absolutely impermissible." And people that I spoke to today were not pleased with that speech at the march. I spoke to Isabel Chang. She's a local resident who told me that China's government needs to understand that Hong Kong is different and should be treated that way.

ISABEL CHANG: Hong Kong's special. It's because its rule of law, its independence. And people have, like, freedoms. And they can express, you know, what they want, you know. But nowadays, you know, the government doesn't seem to agree that. And they don't even try to protect those kind of rights of the people.

MARTIN: That sounds like a lot of frustration about this one country, two systems model that China was supposed to be upholding when it took over Hong Kong. So it sounds to me that people feel that that's not really the case.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I think the big concern here is that it's more one country, rather than two systems at this point. And this week, that frustration extended to the international community. Yesterday at a press conference in Beijing, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry told reporters that the blueprint for this model of governance, which was agreed upon between Great Britain and China back in the 1980s in what's called the Joint Declaration, has lost its significance.

Now, that was a big deal because here you had a high-level Chinese official basically saying that a treaty signed with China and Great Britain on the future governance of Hong Kong, a treaty that China agreed to in order for Great Britain to even hand over the city, a treaty that was then submitted to the United Nations, that this treaty was meaningless.

So this comment has caused a wave of concern within diplomatic circles worldwide. You know, Great Britain was quick to come out and criticize the stance by the Chinese. And it came up in today's protests among Hong Kong residents, who are worried that China is tearing up its agreement to allow Hong Kong a fair degree of autonomy.

MARTIN: So are there deeper implications then for anybody signing international agreements with China?

SCHMITZ: That's exactly right. You know, if China's going to toss out an incredibly important treaty that it signed in this manner, then it raises big questions about the value of anything it signs with any country or international organization like the WTO, the U.N., you name it. So in some ways, this news from Beijing made a bigger splash than anything that came out of Hong Kong this week.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Hong Kong. Rob, thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thanks a lot.


Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.