[UPDATED: Friday 08:00]

China President Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong on Thursday to mark 20 years since its return to China by Britain, with activists under arrest as authorities sought to avoid embarrassment during anniversary celebrations. A huge security operation shut down large parts of the normally throbbing city, with thousands of police deployed to keep away demonstrators angry at Beijing's tightening grip on the freedoms of nearly eight million people.

The lockdown reflects Beijing's concern that nothing should be allowed to taint the high-profile visit, ahead of a key Communist Party congress later this year which is expected to cement Xi's position as the most powerful Chinese leader in a generation.

More than 20 activists - including Joshua Wong and young legislator Nathan Law - were kept in custody Thursday after being arrested for causing a "public nuisance" during a Wednesday protest.

Wong and Law were released in the early hours of Friday morning, the activists said via their Twitter accounts.

There were also arrests Thursday linked to anti-China graffiti on street signs and barricades, with red sprayed-on slogans reading "Hong Kong has fallen for 20 years".

Local media reports said three people had been arrested for damaging property. The Facebook page of campaign group Hong Kong Indigenous, which advocates independence for the city, said one of its members was in police custody over the graffiti, along with two relatives.

The three-day visit is Xi's first since becoming leader in 2013, and comes three years after huge pro-democracy protests crippled the semi-autonomous city for months as "Umbrella Movement" campaigners camped out on thoroughfares. Xi's carefully choreographed trip began with his arrival at Chek Lap Kok airport on an Air China plane, where he emerged holding hands with his wife, singer Peng Liyuan, to be welcomed by a marching band and flag-waving children.

"After nine years I am once again stepping on Hong Kong soil. I feel very happy. Hong Kong has always had a place in my heart," a smiling Xi said in a brief speech on the tarmac. He added that China would support Hong Kong's development and improve people's livelihoods "as it always has" but suggested he felt the city could be doing better by saying he "sincerely wishes Hong Kong can once again achieve splendor".

Xi said he wanted to ensure Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" set-up, which is enshrined in the handover deal and gives it rights unseen on the mainland, "is on a stable, long-lasting path".

Pro-democracy campaigners say the system is being eroded as Beijing interferes in a range of areas, from politics to education and media. One reporter shouted to Xi on the airport tarmac, asking whether he would free cancer-stricken Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was granted medical parole earlier this week. The question was ignored.


Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong is detained by police officers after he climb up to a giant flower statue bequeathed by Beijing in 1997 in Golden Bauhinia Square of Hong Kong Wednesday, June 28, 2017. Hong Kong is planning a big party as it marks 20-years under Chinese rule, ceded from Britain. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Security lockdown

Xi later met unpopular city leader Leung Chun-ying and praised him for his "firm" handling of the city and dealing with what he called "accumulated problems." He went on to visit the new West Kowloon Cultural District where children performed Chinese opera and Xi oversaw the signing of an agreement on the development of a local branch of China's National Palace Museum. That project has sparked accusations of cultural brainwashing and a lack of transparency as Hong Kong residents were not consulted.

Xi and his entourage have taken over two hotels near the convention center on Hong Kong Island's famed waterfront, which will be the scene of many celebratory events over the coming 48 hours. The area has been cordoned off by giant water-filled barricades and police have said they are taking "counter-terrorism security measures" to ensure Xi's safety.

Animosity towards Beijing has grown in recent years, particularly among young people. The failure of mass rallies in 2014 to win democratic reform has sparked a new wave of "localist" activists, keen to emphasize Hong Kong's own identity, with some calling for a full split from the mainland.

But some residents were jubilant. Female dance troupes took to public stages near the convention center, some performing military-inspired routines in camouflage and red berets. The zones were decorated with cartoon images of the president and his nickname "Xi Dada" - which translates as "Big Daddy Xi" - used as an affectionate term by the mainland Chinese public and in propaganda videos.

"It should be an honor to get the number one person in China to come to a very small city," said one 38-year-old man at a celebratory gathering, who gave his name as Mr Fan, adding that things were better than under British rule.

Xi's visit will culminate in the inauguration of new city leader Carrie Lam, who was appointed by a pro-China committee and is already being cast as a Beijing stooge by critics.

Lam has said she wants to focus on livelihood issues instead of politics, in a city where the wealth gap is at a record high and many cannot afford decent housing, fuelling tensions.


photo credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip/達志影像

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan arrive at the airport in Hong Kong, China, ahead of celebrations marking the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip