Five years ago, when Xi Jinping first traveled to Hong Kong as head of state and party leader, his visit was accompanied by loud protests and calls for more democracy.

When he arrived for his second visit on Thursday, there were only cheering pictures all over the city.

The protest leaders from back then are in prison and in exile.

The few remaining critics were intimidated in advance by the police.

The speed with which China transformed once-autonomous Hong Kong from a liberal society to a police state in just two years says something about the spirit in Beijing today.

It was very different 25 years ago.

When the British handed over their then crown colony to Beijing, Deng Xiaoping promised Hong Kongers that they could be part of China without immediately submitting to the Communist Party.

His promise had a name: one country, two systems.

It was a remarkable concept used by the communist leadership to allay Hong Kongers' fears of returning under the Chinese roof after 156 years of British rule.

After all, most Hong Kongers or their parents had once fled the excesses of the Communist Party to the colony.

"We're not asking them to approve of China's socialist system.

We only expect them to love the motherland and Hong Kong," was Deng's slogan.

Xi Jinping's 'new era' for Hong Kong

This pragmatism enabled China's economic rise.

The country wanted to do business with the West and overcome the isolation it had been thrown into by the bloody 1989 crackdown on the student movement.

Hong Kong offered an ideal environment for this with its culturally diverse society and the free exchange of goods, capital and ideas.

Not much is left of this openness.

Instead of seeing Hong Kong's ties to the West as an opportunity, Xi Jinping sees them as a threat to his regime's stability.

The head of state and party leader wants to proclaim a “new era” for Hong Kong this Friday.

But there is no sign of a new beginning in the city.

This is not only due to the decline of freedom.

The pro-Beijing section of society has also fallen into a corona depression.

Because of China's zero-Covid strategy, Hong Kong is about to lose its status as an international financial center and regional headquarters.

Xi Jinping cannot spread optimism about the future in Hong Kong because there is none in the whole country.

Youth unemployment has risen to record levels since China has lurched from one corona lockdown to the next and since Xi Jinping has tightened the shackles on the private sector.

The two-month lockdown of Shanghai, the country's most modern metropolis, has sown doubts about the course of the party leadership in parts of the middle and upper classes.

The city remains useful

In Hong Kong, the debate about the city's future hasn't really started yet.

The business elite there has not yet come to terms with the fact that Hong Kong's importance for China is steadily declining.

The crucial questions will be answered in Beijing anyway.

For example, how free science at Hong Kong universities can be in the future.

In one respect, Hong Kong still has a special economic function for China that sets it apart from other cities.

It has its own currency, the Hong Kong dollar, which is pegged to the US dollar and is freely convertible.

This makes it easier for Chinese companies to expand abroad and access foreign investors.

As an offshore hub, Hong Kong could help China cushion the impact of possible future Western sanctions.

So the city remains useful.

However, Beijing does not need the residents for this.

China had twenty-five years to convince Hong Kong youth of its social model.

But instead of arousing curiosity and enthusiasm, it sowed resentment and fueled a desire for a local Hong Kong identity.

Other countries would have found it difficult to integrate a society that was socialized and organized in a completely different way.

But the fact that China was ultimately only able to achieve this through coercion says a lot about the lack of appeal of its current development model, which apparently only receives support where China can spread its propaganda unchallenged.

As long as the internet is still free in Hong Kong, Beijing will have a hard time with its embassies there.

The concern that this bastion could fall next is all the more justified.