Asia

China's Xi in Hong Kong for the first time as president; protests in the streets

Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Hong Kong Thursday for a three-day visit to the former British colony, his first trip there since he took office, as officials raced to crack down on pro-democracy protests planned throughout his stay. 

Saturday marks 20 years since Beijing took control of Hong Kong. The Chinese president said planning for the city's future would be on his agenda. He also was expected to inspect Chinese troops at a People's Liberation Army base on Friday and oversee the inauguration ceremony for the city's new leader, Carrie Lam, on Saturday. 

"It's been nine years since I last set foot in this place. I'm thrilled," Xi said on the airport tarmac after his arrival. "Hong Kong has been tugging away at my heart."

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Pro-democracy activists held demonstrations before Xi's arrival, worried that Beijing has undercut the "one country, two systems" framework that was agreed upon in 1997. China agreed to allow Hong Kong to run majority of its own affairs and hold on to civil liberties such as free speech until 2047. However, a string of recent incidents, including the secret detention of five Hong Kong booksellers on the mainland, have led residents to believe otherwise. 

More protests are expected during the three-day visit, including an annual march through the streets on Saturday. The march has drawn huge crowds years before -- and it's expected to do the same this year. Authorities in Hong Kong deployed heavy security around a downtown convention center, hotel complex and throughout the city. They even glued the gaps between sidewalk paving stones in an effort to prevent them from being torn up and thrown by protesters.

Three pro-democracy groups said 26 of their members were arrested Wednesday evening on public nuisance charges for staging a sit-in at a giant flower sculpture near the complex. They were still detained hours after Xi arrived. Police have the power to hold them up to 48 hours.

Those arrested included Joshua Wong, the young activist who helped lead 2014's "Umbrella Movement" protests, and Nathan Law, another student protest leader who was elected to the legislature last year. The sculpture of a bauhinia flower, Hong Kong's emblem, was a gift from China, the BBC reported.

However, Xi still held an optimistic view for the Asian financial hub, saying he sees "stable development" for the future. 

Xi added that the anniversary of Hong Kong's "return to the motherland" is "a big deal, a joyous occasion for the country and for Hong Kong." Britain ceded control of its colony to China at midnight on June 30, 1997. 

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"We would like to look back at Hong Kong's extraordinary journey over the past 20 years, to learn from our experience, and look forward to the future to ensure the stable development of 'one country, two systems,'" he said in brief remarks before speeding off in a motorcade without answering questions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.