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 began a two-day visit by stepping off a high-speed train at the West Kowloon station that connects the city to the mainland. The station was sealed off by large crowd-control barriers and hundreds of police officers. Inside, he and his wife, Peng Liyuan, were greeted by schoolchildren and supporters who waved flower bouquets and small Chinese and Hong Kong flags in front of billboards that read, “A New Era: Stability, Prosperity, Opportunity.” Lion dancers performed as the neatly ordered rows of greeters chanted, “Warmly welcome, warmly welcome.”
Mr. Xi has not left China in 29 months, a noticeable halt in international travel for the leader that indicates the great concern Beijing has about the risk of exposure to Covid. In preparation for his visit, Hong Kong erected an elaborate, closed-loop bubble to try to keep the virus out.
Mr. Xi’s decision to visit Hong Kong despite a recent rise in infections in the city underscores the importance of signaling his authority over the former British colony. This is Mr. Xi’s first time in Hong Kong since he enforced a sweeping crackdown on the city after pro-democracy protesters mounted a serious challenge to Beijing’s rule in 2019.
“Hong Kong has withstood one severe challenge after another, and overcome one hazard after another,” he said in a brief speech upon his arrival. “After the storm, Hong Kong has been reborn from the ashes, showing flourishing vitality.”
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.
The authorities set up security perimeters around areas where Mr. Xi was expected to visit, installing temporary fences and tall, water-filled plastic barriers and closing roads and public transport stations. Drones have been banned across the city.
“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.
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.