SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China. China's Xi Jinping celebrated with a visit to the city.
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PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Speaking Chinese).
SIMON: President Xi gave a televised speech at an event that was closed to the public. He warned Hong Kong residents that any attempt to challenge the power of China's government or its sovereignty over Hong Kong is absolutely impermissible. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from Hong Kong. Rob, thanks for being with us.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, thanks for having me.
SIMON: Why such strong words at what's supposed to be a celebration?
SCHMITZ: Yeah. I mean, part of the reason is that this is not only Xi Jinping's first visit to Hong Kong as president, but it's also his first visit since 2014. And that's the year that pro-democracy protesters shut down the city's financial district for months. And that led to a violent police crackdown. And the protesters were angry because they felt China broke its promise from back in 1997 that it would ensure a high degree of autonomy for the city, and it would allow Hong Kong citizens to vote for their local leader.
Many Hong Kong residents say under Xi Jinping's leadership, China's government has tightened its grip over the city. And the president's speech this morning, which was closed off from the public because that relationship between the public and China's government is so toxic, was a warning that if there are more protests, the situation could get worse.
SIMON: What kind of response are you hearing from people in Hong Kong?
SCHMITZ: Well. I've heard many complaints about Xi Jinping and Chinese rule during my reporting here this week. But what's interesting is that there were many protests scheduled yesterday and today countering Xi Jinping's visit. And in every single one of them, the turnout was less than expected. Yesterday, the student activist leader Joshua Wong called on people to protest Xi Jinping's visit, and only a few dozen people showed up.
It was an interesting situation where the international media and police officers outnumbered the actual protesters. This afternoon here in Hong Kong, I attended a pro-democracy march. And now, there were a couple thousand people who showed up to that. But according to Isabel Chang, a local Hong Kong resident, it paled in comparison to the turnouts of previous years. And here's what she said.
ISABEL CHANG: You know, Hong Kong's the only place in China that we have the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, you know, to express our woe. But not much people are exercising that, yeah, so I'm a little bit disappointed.
SIMON: Rob, what do you make of a small turnout like that?
SCHMITZ: Yeah. I asked a lot of people about this this week. And most people here told me a slightly different version of the same story. Earlier this week, I spoke to Emily Shi, a local Hong Kong resident who works as a flight attendant. And here's what she told me.
EMILY SHI: (Speaking Chinese).
SCHMITZ: She's saying here that a lot of people have been protesting in Hong Kong in recent years, and it's really gotten nowhere. She says the government isn't willing to change. And she doesn't see things getting better any time soon as China tightens its grip over the city. And as that happens, young professionals like Emily are becoming more and more frustrated. And it's interesting, nearly everyone I spoke to in the local Hong Kong neighborhoods that I visited this week were not complaining about their political rights. They were complaining about their economic rights.
Emily is a good example. She's 27. She's married. Both she and her husband are employed, yet neither of them can afford to buy even the tiniest apartment in the neighborhood where they grew up. Property prices here are some of the highest in the world. And locals blame an influx of wealthy mainland Chinese, who they say are buying up property, making it impossible for them to thrive. And the numbers seem to back this up. The wealth gap in Hong Kong is at its widest since China took control of the city 20 years ago.
SIMON: NPR's Rob Schmitz in Hong Kong. Thanks so much for being with us.
SCHMITZ: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.