Hong Kong is facing an existential threat. A vast protest on Sunday reflects the culmination of angst over changes that are undermining the foundations of the Chinese city’s economic prosperity and its distinct identity. How the impasse is resolved has implications not only for this former British colony and global financial center, but for the future of relations between China and the Western democratic world.
When the U.K. handed back control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Beijing promised the city that it could maintain an independent legal system, democratic freedoms and a “high degree of autonomy” for at least 50 years. This “One Country, Two Systems” formula has underpinned the city’s success because it allowed Hong Kong to maintain access to global markets as a separate, law-abiding and free-trading member of the World Trade Organization. But as President Xi Jinping has concentrated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, Hong Kong’s autonomy – and therefore its economic raison d'etre – has come under ever greater threat.