HONG KONG — Since the pandemic erupted in 2020, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has been hunkered down in a virus-free bubble within his country’s closed borders. On Thursday, he left the safe confines of the mainland for the first time, arriving in Hong Kong for a tightly scripted visit aimed at reinforcing his authority over the city.
Mr. Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, were greeted by schoolchildren and supporters who waved flower bouquets and small Chinese and Hong Kong flags as they stepped off a high-speed train at the sealed-off West Kowloon station to begin a two-day visit. Lion dancers performed as the neatly ordered rows of greeters chanted, “Warmly welcome, warmly welcome.”
Mr. Xi’s decision to visit Hong Kong despite a recent rise in Covid infections in the city underscores the importance of signaling his control over the former British colony. This is Mr. Xi’s first time in Hong Kong since pro-democracy protesters mounted a serious challenge to Beijing’s rule in 2019 that roiled the territory for months. In the years since, Mr. Xi has enforced a sweeping crackdown on dissent, with the arrests of thousands of people, including leading opposition figures, lawmakers, academics, newspaper editors and a retired Catholic bishop.
For many residents, the crackdown sent a chill over the city, transforming it beyond recognition. Mr. Xi, in a brief speech upon his arrival, sought to strike a positive note about the city’s “brighter future.”
“Hong Kong has withstood one severe challenge after another, and overcome one hazard after another,” he said. “After the storm, Hong Kong has been reborn from the ashes, showing flourishing vitality.”
Mr. Xi has not left China in 29 months. His absence has been increasingly conspicuous, especially as a flurry of diplomacy arose in response to the war in Ukraine and the ensuing political, military and economic fallout. He called in via video link to a meeting of the Group of 20 in December; he sent a written statement to November’s climate meeting in Glasgow. He has yet to meet President Biden in person.
The inward turn points in large part to Beijing’s preoccupation with protecting Mr. Xi’s health ahead of an all-important Communist Party congress later this year where he is expected to claim another five years as China’s leader. But for Mr. Xi, taking a victory lap in Hong Kong is crucial to asserting his vision of national rejuvenation, in which the Communist Party restores China to what he regards as its rightful place as a global power.
“Even though he has not been away from mainland China since early 2020, Xi thinks that, in terms of both his prestige and popularity, it would be good for him to visit just for several hours,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, referring to local news reports that Mr. Xi would not stay in Hong Kong overnight and would instead travel back to the bordering Chinese city of Shenzhen.
“Hong Kong has been undergoing drastic changes in the last three years, so he wants to reassure the public,” Mr. Lam said.
To try to keep the virus out during Mr. Xi’s visit, Hong Kong erected an elaborate, closed-loop bubble. Thousands of government officials, dozens of foreign dignitaries and a carefully selected group of journalists were asked to undergo a week of daily rapid antigen tests and be confined in a hotel for quarantine this week. Office workers in a neighborhood that Mr. Xi was reportedly planning to visit were told to stay home. One school even sent dozens of students into quarantine for several days so they could greet Mr. Xi upon his arrival.
The stringent epidemic protocols Hong Kong has imposed for Mr. Xi’s visit are in contrast to many places with similarly high vaccination rates, which dropped such controls months ago. But China is the last country in the world that maintains a policy of trying to eliminate Covid, and is most likely concerned by a surge in cases in Hong Kong, where more than 2,000 daily Covid cases were recorded on Wednesday for the first time since April.
The closely choreographed visit, with few publicly announced details and a high level of security, suggests that Mr. Xi’s public interactions will be limited and protesters will be kept away, preventing unwelcome surprises.
Mr. Xi is expected to attend the swearing-in of the city’s next leader, John Lee, a former security chief, and his government on Friday, as every Chinese leader has done since the city’s official handover ceremony in 1997. Beijing had promised Hong Kong 50 years of “one country, two systems,” allowing it to preserve its freedoms of speech, assembly and the press unimaginable in the mainland after China resumed sovereignty. But halfway through that half-century, Hong Kong’s distinctive differences have shrunk as Mr. Xi has tightened Beijing’s grip on the city.
During his last visit to Hong Kong in 2017, Mr. Xi presided over the 20th anniversary of the handover and the inauguration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Her tenure would come to be defined by the citywide antigovernment protests, which began as peaceful rallies in defiance of an unpopular bill, but morphed into sometimes violent antigovernment dissent in response to brutal police tactics and Beijing’s encroachment on civil liberties.
Mr. Xi imposed an expansive national security law on the city in 2020 aimed at stamping out opposition to the ruling Communist Party. Since then, the arrests of dozens of protesters and pro-democracy lawmakers and the shuttering of several news outlets have transformed the city, which was once known for its culture of political activism and free speech.
As part of Hong Kong’s Covid bubble for Mr. Xi’s visit, foreign consuls invited to attend were given instructions to undergo daily Covid testing starting June 23, and to limit their movements to a “point-to-point closed loop” system consisting of home and office. “Gathering activities and contact with other people are to be avoided,” the Celebration Coordination Office said in a booklet sent to various consulates and seen by The New York Times. Guests were told they would then need to go into hotel quarantine on June 30.
Journalists covering the event were sent to a different hotel from officials and dignitaries, on the other side of Victoria Harbor. The media presence will be smaller and more controlled than it was in previous ceremonies commemorating the handover. More than 10 journalists have been denied permission to cover Mr. Xi’s visit, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association. Asked to comment on the restrictions, the government said it was balancing the media’s participation with “security requirements.”
In addition to the guests attending events, hundreds of hotel workers, cleaners and other personnel who have helped to make the closed loop possible have had to quarantine as well.
Cathy Cheng Yuk-ting, a member of the staff at Camlux Hotel in Kowloon Bay, where reporters and some government officials and members of the police force began their quarantine on Wednesday, said she had been quarantining in the hotel since Monday.
Ms. Cheng, 39, said she missed her three daughters: two 4-year-old twins and a toddler. She had volunteered to take shifts during what she called a historic week.
Every day after work, she returns to her hotel room for a video call with her family. “My daughters asked, ‘Mom, why can’t you go home?’” she said. “But this is my job. There is no other way.” she said.