Parts of Hong Kong ground to a standstill on Thursday as police threw an unprecedented ring of security around President Xi Jinping and his entourage to shield them from all, including protesters – who were nowhere in sight after more than two dozen were detained the previous night.
Workers in their office blocks had to wait as Xi’s motorcade passed by, while pedestrians were steered away from pavements and drivers from several roads before Xi and wife Peng Liyuan arrived in the city at noon Friday.
Huge water barricades surrounded a part of Wan Chai district housing the hotel Xi was staying in, and the venue for key handover anniversary celebrations.
In the waters off Wan Chai, a police fast pursuit craft was seen joining a fleet of more than 10 launches patrolling the harbour around the clock.
Police said the deployment was necessary as the assessment of the threat level for the visit was “fairly high”.
A separatist group, the Hong Kong National Party, vowed to defy a police ban and planned to go ahead with an anti-China rally on Friday in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Some prominent activists, including student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung, were to apply for help from the courts to overturn what they described as their “unreasonable detention”.
Their case was to be heard on Friday morning.
Twenty-six protesters were arrested on Wednesday night for staging a sit-in protest at Golden Bauhinia Square, where Xi and his entourage were scheduled to attend a flag-raising ceremony on Friday.
The security lockdown was in force the moment Xi stepped out of his Air China jet at Hong Kong International Airport.
Police officers from the elite VIP Protection Unit, one carrying a briefcase – with a sub-machine gun inside – moved in to escort the president as he crossed the tarmac and stepped into a bulletproof limousine.
Fellow officers from the unit ran alongside the limousine for a distance before it took off at full speed.
A security source explained: “This allows them to view any potential enemies clearly and make a speedy response.”
The officers then jumped into one of five protection unit cars that had their doors slightly ajar when the motorcade left.
That allowed them to save time so that “in an emergency, they can jump out of the vehicles quickly to protect their boss”, the source said.
Xi’s BMW limousine was escorted throughout by the five vehicles, including a van full of officers from the Special Duties Unit”, an elite combat team known as the “Flying Tigers”.
Another team of Flying Tigers aboard a Government Flying Service helicopter provided aerial protection. Security was also tight at a Sham Shui Po kindergarten that Peng visited Friday afternoon.
Hong Kong’s political leaders are the embarrassment if they … curtail freedom
Mabel Au, Amnesty International
At the West Kowloon Cultural District, where Xi turned up in the afternoon to oversee the signing of a deal on the setting up of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, more than 100 police officers were seen patrolling the venue since early Thursday morning.
The entire arts hub was closed for two days from Wednesday for a “private event”, according to notices posted on the gates.
There were media reports that some activists could try to hang banners to protest against Xi along the possible routes he might take to visit places, but that did not happen on Thursday.
In a written statement, Amnesty International Hong Kong director Mabel Au said: “It is Hong Kong’s political leaders who are the embarrassment if they go to extreme lengths to curtail freedom of expression and peaceful protest to appease Beijing.”
Meanwhile, in a letter to the Hong Kong National Party, dated June 28, police said the group advocated building a “Hong Kong Republic”, which was in breach of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, and gave authorities the right to ban them.
Fourteen of the 26 protesters arrested for causing a “public nuisance” on Wednesday night had been released on bail as of early Friday morning.
They accused police of deliberately dragging their feet in taking statements in order to prevent them from going out for more protests to mark the visit of Xi to the city.