HONG KONG – President Xi Jinping inspected troops based in Hong Kong on Friday as he asserted China's authority over the former British colony, where anti-China sentiment has been on the rise since Beijing took control 20 years ago.
Xi rode in an open-top jeep past rows of soldiers lined up on an airstrip on his visit to the People's Liberation Army garrison. He called out "Salute all the comrades" and "Salute to your dedication" as he passed 3,100 soldiers arranged in 20 formations.
Armored personnel carriers, combat vehicles, helicopters and other pieces of military hardware were arrayed behind the troops.
It was a rare display of the Chinese military's might in Hong Kong, where it normally maintains a low-key presence. China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is expected to make a port call next month.
Xi, who's also chairman of the Central Military Commission, wore a buttoned-up black jacket in the steamy heat during his 10-minute review of troops at the Shek Kong base in Hong Kong's suburban New Territories. It was part of a visit to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover, when Britain gave up control of the Asian financial hub to China on July 1, 1997.
Hong Kong was granted the freedom to run most of its affairs after it came under China's control under the "one country, two systems" principle. However, Beijing is in charge of the city's defense and foreign affairs. Troops deployed from the mainland are typically confined to bases scattered across town and at headquarters downtown. Hong Kongers aren't allowed to join up.
Apart from trying to drum up Chinese national pride, the military display also served as a warning to groups expressing anti-China sentiment or pushing for independence, said Willy Lam, a political analyst at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The message is that "when all else fails the PLA will always be the last resort. This, I think, would get people quite worried," Lam said. "The implications are quite scary."
Xi's three-day visit to mark the anniversary includes presiding at the inauguration Saturday of the city's new leader, Carrie Lam.
Security has been tight for his visit as authorities brace for protests.
Police arrested 26 people, including young activist leader Joshua Wong, after they climbed onto a giant flower sculpture symbolizing Hong Kong's "reunification" with China on Wednesday. The department said they were later released on bail without charge but are required to report back to police in September. Some were held for more than 30 hours.
Pro-democracy supporters fear Beijing is tightening its grip on Hong Kong and undermining guarantees of wide autonomy under "one country, two systems."
Nathan Law, a former student protest leader elected to Hong Kong's semi-democratic legislature last year, was among those arrested.
The action at the statue "aimed to show that for the past 20 years, our human rights, our freedom, our democracy have deteriorated," Law told reporters Friday.
Another activist, Avery Ng of the League of Social Democrats, said authorities appeared to be increasingly using "thugs" in addition to regular police to intimidate and harass the opposition. Unknown men followed him and at least one other person after their release and refused to identify themselves when confronted, he said.
U.S. officials said they were concerned that China's Communist leaders weren't sticking to their promises.
"Looking ahead to the remaining 30 years of 'one country, two systems,' we cannot allow Hong Kong to go the way of Beijing's failed authoritarianism," U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said in a statement.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Hong Kong was strictly China's domestic affair and rejected all outside expressions of concern.
The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration laying terms for Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule is "no longer relevant today, and has no binding force on the Chinese central government's governance over Hong Kong," Lu said.
"The U.K. has no sovereignty, governance right or the right of supervision over today's Hong Kong. We hope the relevant people can be aware of the reality," Lu said.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report.