When Xi Jinping lands in Hong Kong on Thursday for the first time since becoming China’s president, he will step into a deeply divided city uncertain of its future.
The visit marks 20 years since Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain and comes at a time when many fear the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms are being lost to an ever more assertive Beijing.
Protests are expected during Xi’s three-day trip, which will be shielded by huge security and culminate in the inauguration of new city leader, Carrie Lam.
Pro-democracy campaigner Joshua Wong, who led mass “Umbrella Movement” rallies in 2014 calling for political reform in an unprecedented challenge to Beijing, says he believes Hong Kong is at a crossroads.
“The uniqueness of Hong Kong and the political status of my city are under threat,” 20-year-old Wong told AFP.
He wants a public vote on sovereignty in 2047, when the 50-year handover agreement guaranteeing Hong Kong’s liberties and way of life expires.
Such calls for self-determination or even full independence for Hong Kong grew out of the failure of the 2014 protests to win concessions on democratic reform and have infuriated Beijing.
“What we hope is to let everyone get the right of referendum to decide the future of this city,” Wong said.
Residents were given no say in whether Hong Kong should be returned to China in 1997.
For the past 20 years, Hong Kong has been governed under a “one country, two systems” deal which grants it rights unseen on the mainland, including freedom of speech, an independent judiciary and a partially elected legislature.
Rule of law is seen as key to its role as a gateway between China and the rest of the world.
However, a string of incidents, including the disqualification of two pro-independence lawmakers and alleged abductions by mainland security agents, have sparked concerns the tide is turning.
Beijing and local officials insist Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is secure.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Regina Ip, leader of the New People’s Party, told AFP she thought the semi-autonomous system was “holding up well”.
Hong Kong’s economic growth was better under China than it would have been under Britain, added legislator Felix Chung, head of the pro-establishment Liberal Party.
“The central government gave us a lot of freedoms — they didn’t do too much to control Hong Kong,” he said.
Both Chung and Ip agree political divisions need to be addressed, but argue that requires compromise.
“If you want to have democracy in the sense of cutting Beijing out of the picture, that’s a non-starter,” said Ip.
Lam has pledged to heal rifts but is already being painted by critics as a China stooge.
She has questioned whether it is the right time to revisit the reform debate that triggered the Umbrella Movement.
The protests kicked off after a Beijing-backed plan for leadership elections — promised in the handover deal — said candidates must be vetted first.
Slammed by activists as “fake universal suffrage” it was voted down in parliament by pro-democracy lawmakers.
Lam was chosen by a Beijing-friendly electoral committee, as were her predecessors. Although there are democrats in the legislature, it is still fundamentally weighted towards Beijing.
Campaigners say their calls for the promised reforms have now been sidelined.
Hong Kong’s youngest lawmaker and former Umbrella Movement leader, Nathan Law, says the pro-democracy camp has “very limited power” in parliament, but will not stop pushing for a more representative system.
He also points out that politics is not the only divisive aspect of Hong Kong.
The wealth gap is at a record high, with decent housing unaffordable for many ordinary citizens and the government accused of being out of touch with residents’ basic needs.
“Hong Kong people have lost hope. That is a huge problem for this city,” Law told AFP.
Money from wealthy mainland investors is one of the factors creating Hong Kong’s property bubble.
Companies from across the border have also gained influence in a range of local markets and more mainland residents are setting up home in Hong Kong.
Supporters frame these developments as key to prosperity.
“If Hong Kong wants to be an international city, you need mainland people,” said one 24-year-old financial advisor who gave his name as Christopher.
Opponents call it “mainlandisation”.
“On the surface, people don’t find it that different,” said retiree Wilson Ng, 68, of life in the city.
“But I think there’s lots of influence from mainland China, and from the government.”