When we lived in Shenzhen, an industrial megacity in mainland China, my husband and I would occasionally visit Hong Kong on the weekends. Entering the former British colony was always a shock to my system. Unlike Shenzhen, Hong Kong was full of signs in English and people speaking Cantonese, the dialect of my childhood. All around were foreigners, British-style double-decker buses, and plenty of familiar brands and stores.

But what captivated me most about Hong Kong was its people. Physically, they looked similar to the professional classes on Shenzhen—same hair styles, petite frames, wardrobe choices. But their faces were completely different. When Hong Kongers talked, their faces became much more animated. When they smiled, you could see their teeth. Sometimes I would just observe people as I wandered down the crowded, narrow streets. And as I watched, I felt the heaviness of mainland China begin to lift. In Hong Kong, the spirits of the people were alive.

For the past two weeks, those narrow streets of Hong Kong have been teeming with crowds of a different sort: students and professionals, workers and activists, all protesting the recent proclamation that Hong Kong’s next top leader would be elected from a slate of Beijing-approved candidates. The protesters see this as an underhanded strategy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to gain greater control over the Westernized territory.

When the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, the conditions of the handover were clear: Hong Kong would retain its current way of life—including all its freedoms, civil society, economic and political systems—for 50 years.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the ...

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