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HONG KONG – Chinese President Xi Jinping warned Saturday that any activities in Hong Kong seen as threatening China's sovereignty and stability would be "absolutely impermissible," employing some of his harshest language yet against burgeoning separatist sentiment in the territory.
In a speech marking 20 years since the city became a semi-autonomous Chinese region after its handover from Britain, Xi pledged Beijing's support for the "one country, two systems" blueprint, under which Hong Kong controls many of its own affairs and retains civil liberties including free speech.
However, he said Hong Kong had to do more to shore up security and boost patriotic education, in a veiled reference to legislation long-delayed by popular opposition.
And he appeared to put on notice a new wave of activists pushing for more autonomy or even independence, saying challenges to the power of China's central government and Hong Kong's leaders wouldn't be tolerated.
Any attempt to challenge China's sovereignty, security and government authority or use Hong Kong to "carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible," Xi said, moments after presiding over the inauguration of Hong Kong's new leader, Carrie Lam.
Hong Kong has been roiled by political turmoil that brought tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets in 2014 demanding democratic reforms. Those calls were ignored by Beijing and Xi indicated there would be no giving ground in the future, frustrating many young people and deepening divisions.
"Making everything political or deliberately creating differences and provoking confrontations will not resolve the problems," Xi said, adding that Hong Kong "cannot afford to be torn apart by reckless moves or internal rifts."
Hours after Xi flew home to Beijing, thousands of pro-democracy supporters gathered for a march through the city's shopping and financial districts to demand greater political openness and oppose China's creeping influence in their city.
Young activists have formed new groups promoting independence or a local Hong Kong identity separate from the mainland, alarming Beijing.
Meanwhile, incidents such as the secret detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers on the mainland have stirred fears that Beijing is undermining the "one country, two systems" blueprint.
Xi's speech "was a mixture of reassurance and warning," as he signaled that the system in place since 1997 won't change, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. "At the same time, there was a strong warning to the localists and the pro-independence people."
Cabestan said it was clear that Xi's priority is for Lam, to revive efforts to bring in long-delayed national security legislation, which pro-democracy activists fear will be used to suppress dissent, and patriotic national education in schools, which parents fear is a cover for pro-Communist "brainwashing."
They're two polarizing issues that have the potential to mobilize big crowds to take to the streets.
"We are heading towards troubled times," said Cabestan. "I don't think he's going to give up. If he doesn't give up it means there will be more problems."
While former colonial master Britain and other Western democracies have expressed concerns about Beijing's actions in Hong Kong, China has increasingly made clear that it brooks no outside criticism or attempts at intervention.
Xi said China had made it "categorically clear" in talks with Britain in the 1980s that "sovereignty is not for negotiation."
"Now that Hong Kong has returned to China, it is all the more important for us to firmly uphold China's sovereignty, security and development interests," he said.
Activists scoffed at Xi's remarks.
The idea that there's a force in Hong Kong sabotaging China or challenging its sovereignty is "ludicrous," said Avery Ng of the League of Social Democrats, a small pro-democracy party. He said Xi used nationalist pride "to alienate any opposition voices that call for democracy and universal suffrage both inside China and in Hong Kong."
Members of Ng's group attempted to march to the speech venue with a mock coffin symbolizing the death of the city's civil liberties, but were met by police and pro-China flag-waving counter-protesters in a brief standoff.
Lam became Hong Kong's fifth chief executive since 1997 and the first female to hold the post. The career civil servant and her Cabinet swore to serve China and Hong Kong and to uphold the Basic Law, the territory's mini-constitution.
In a speech that ran a fraction of Xi's 32-minute address, Lam reviewed the dynamic financial center's achievements and challenges, pledged to support central government initiatives and declared that "the future is bright."
There was other symbolism hinting at the balance of power.
Lam took her oath of office and delivered her address in Mandarin, China's official language, save for a few lines at the end in Hong Kong's Cantonese dialect. The official transcript of Xi's speech was printed in the mainland's simplified characters instead of Hong Kong's traditional complex characters.
Even the Chinese flag displayed behind Xi as he spoke was noticeably larger than Hong Kong's beside it.
"It speaks volumes to me who is the boss, who is calling the shots," said Cabestan.
Lam prevailed over a much more popular rival in a selection process decried by many as "fake democracy," with only 777 votes from a 1,200-seat panel of mostly pro-Beijing elites. Hong Kong has more than 3 million registered voters.
Participants in the pro-democracy march largely dismissed Lam as a loyal bureaucrat, but said the change in leadership introduced a new measure of uncertainty.
That, combined with Xi's visit, had sharpened the mood for this year's march, said one veteran participant, retiree David Tse. "Things are much more tense. It's much more uncertain," he said.
Organizers estimated the number of participants at 60,000, about half of last year's figure. The pro-democracy movement lost considerable momentum after Beijing turned a cold shoulder to the 2014 protests. Police estimated that 14,500 took part, down about 5,000 from their estimate last year.
Many participants said they were marching in support of imprisoned Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who has been diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. Liu's face featured on countless signs held aloft by marchers who called on China to release him to seek treatment abroad.
University student Sean Law said Liu's fate showed what the party was capable of in suppressing its foes.
Commenting on Xi's speech, Law said it showed the president's "ignorance" about Hong Kong.
"He wants to spread China's ideas, but he doesn't understand Hong Kong and has little contact with the people of Hong Kong. His visit is meaningless," Law said.