China’s yellow-starred flag hung from a helicopter Saturday far above Hong Kong’s placid harbor. A tinier version of the territory’s red and white banner dangled underneath.
The flags accentuated the power play between the communist country and the capitalist city, as an anniversary weekend meant to honor a united China devolved instead into displays of division.
On one side stood the country’s leader, on the other, thousands of Hong Kong protesters who rebuked his historic visit and warned of dwindling freedoms under Chinese rule.
President Xi Jinping’s trip, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China, sent a pointed signal to the world that Beijing won’t tolerate challenges to its control – whether at home or abroad.
“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government…or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage against the mainland, is an act that crosses the red line,” Xi said after presiding over the inauguration of Carrie Lam, the city’s new chief executive.
He cautioned against “making everything political or deliberately creating differences” that could cost the city its success as Asia’s financial hub.
This marked Xi’s first trip as president to the territory, which struggles with deep political divides, unmanageable property prices, a widening income gap, and a frustrated young population with few options to advance.
Hundreds of thousands of people took part in a months-long street protest in 2014 for the right to elect their own leader. The so-called Umbrella Movement failed to win concessions, but it gave rise to a small pro-independence push that has ruffled Beijing.
China agreed to give Hong Kong limited autonomy for five decades after the handover, granting it rare freedoms such as an independent judicial system and uncensored media. Officials labeled the formula “one country, two systems.”
But Xi’s government has pushed against those boundaries. Five booksellers who sold salacious material about China’s leaders disappeared in 2015 — then resurfaced in custody on the mainland. In January, secret police abducted a well-connected Chinese billionaire from his bed at the Four Seasons hotel.
China’s parliament has issued unprecedented interventions in the city’s legal system. Despite a lack of public support, Lam was elected by a small group of largely pro-Beijing elites.
Xi on Saturday affirmed the economic success of Hong Kong and the two systems framework. He also rallied behind patriotic education and a national security law that could erode free speech, both controversial issues in the city.
Even his demeanor suggested power: Xi walked to the stage in front of Lam and maintained an aloof half-smile as he shook hands with her top officials.
“This indicates Beijing’s next stage in dealing with Hong Kong,” said Ding Xueliang, a social science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “The calculation from the Communist Party leadership is not just termed in money and business, it’s in political control.”
Xi’s trip was heavy with symbolism.
He spent Friday morning at the hillside garrison of the People’s Liberation Army, which has historically kept a low profile. Hundreds of tanks lined the road as Xi rode past in an open-air jeep, saluting soldiers in the city’s biggest military parade since the handover.
Xi met with business leaders but kept his distance from pro-democracy groups; the biggest protest didn’t begin until Xi departed. He concluded his trip at a 31-mile bridge that will connect Hong Kong to the mainland, a physical binding of the two regions.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang on Friday called the Sino-British Joint Declaration — which detailed rights for Hong Kong citizens — a piece of paper with “no practical significance.”
Lu was responding to reporters about comments by British and U.S. officials, who used the anniversary to highlight the value of civil liberties.
But many at Saturday’s march considered their protest a global appeal to an international community that’s ignoring their plight.
“We don’t want to give the world a signal that Hong Kong people are celebrating,” said Andy Chan Ho-tin, the leader of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party. “It’s not a day to celebrate. It’s a day to mourn.”
Organizers said 60,000 people participated in the demonstration. Many screamed for universal suffrage. Others carried photos of Liu Xiaobo, the democracy campaigner and Nobel laureate imprisoned by Chinese authorities. Officials this week granted Liu medical parole for terminal cancer, but are not letting him seek treatment abroad.
Groups march every July 1, but this milestone year held more poignancy.
“Xi’s visit felt like a political show, just for him,” said Coco Ma, a 44-year-old florist who made her way in rainy, steamy weather. “Hong Kong’s future, it almost has no future.”
The city deployed nearly a third of its 29,000 police officers during Xi’s visit. Entire sections of town shut down. Several demonstrators, including the well-known young activist Joshua Wong, said Beijing supporters attacked them when they tried to protest an early morning flag-raising ceremony.
Wong was arrested earlier in the week, along with nearly 30 other pro-democracy protesters, on suspicion of public nuisance. The group encircled the Golden Bauhinia, a blooming flower statue offered as a gift from China in 1997 to celebrate the transition of power. Police held the crew for more than a day.
These scuffles lay bare the deep divisions between those who desire democracy and those who want a closer relationship with China.
“Every place has establishment and opposition forces, but the prerequisite should be to love your own country,” said Priscilla Leung, a legislator and vice chairwoman for the pro-Beijing Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong.
Lam faces an unenviable challenge to balance the two interests, along with those of Beijing. She gave her speech almost entirely in Mandarin, the national language of China, although Cantonese is most Hong Kong residents’ native tongue.
She vowed to “build a harmonious society and renew the people’s trust in government.”
The crowd ended the march near Lam’s future office, just as dusk settled on the city. They stood in pelting rain, but few looked ready to leave.
Meyers is a special correspondent.
10:15 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.
This article was originally published at 5:30 a.m.