HONG KONG - Chinese President Xi Jinping has arrived in Hong Kong Thursday to mark 25 years since the former British colony returned to Beijing’s rule.

It is his first visit outside mainland China since the start of the pandemic nearly two-and-a-half years ago. He said Hong Kong had “risen from the ashes” after a series of challenges. China took control over the territory after pro-democracy protests in 2019-20 and has been accused by critics of crushing Hong Kong’s freedoms. Mr Xi, who travelled by high-speed train, was greeted at the station by pupils holding flowers and waving flags of China and Hong Kong. “In the past Hong Kong has withstood severe tests again and again, overcoming challenges one by one,” he said in a brief speech, perhaps referring to the mass protests three years ago.

He said “one country, two systems” - the governance model agreed for 50 years in the handover - “can ensure the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong”. Under the deal, the international business hub was allowed to retain a degree of autonomy and freedom not seen in the rest of China, but critics say these are being rapidly eroded. Security is tight around the convention centre that is hosting official events marking the anniversary, with roads closed and a no-fly zone overhead.

An expected typhoon may dampen the celebrations, which have seen city streets fill with China’s red flags and posters proclaiming a “new era” of stability.

No details of the president’s itinerary during the two-day visit have been made public. Reports say he is staying the night in the nearby city of Shenzhen. Mr Xi has not left mainland China since it closed its borders in early 2020 after the outbreak of coronavirus.

Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive Carrie Lam and her successor John Lee were among those who welcomed Mr Xi at a high-speed railway terminus not used for over two years because of Covid-19. He is expected to return to the city today (Friday) to oversee the inauguration of its new leader.

Ms Lam and Mr Lee, a former senior policeman, along with other officials meeting the president in person, have been taking daily Covid tests and staying in a quarantine hotel ahead of the visit, reports say.

Mr Xi’s arrival has been so shrouded in secrecy that a few pro-Beijing politicians complained on local radio talk shows that they had missed the chance to quarantine and been unable to meet the nation’s leader.

Media bosses were also annoyed after some journalists were refused accreditation at the very last minute “on security grounds”.

“We have an obligation to keep it secret,” assistant police commissioner Lui Kam-ho told a recent news conference.

Twenty-five years ago, when Prince Charles and Lord Patten left Hong Kong after the handover, there was also a rainy sky - but no such secrecy.