The protests on the streets of Hong Kong over the last few days are about far more than just the proposed changes to the extradition law.
Hong Kongers are opposing amendments that would allow them – and anyone one else present in Hong Kong – to be extradited into the mainland Chinese justice system, which is capricious and repressive in equal measure.
But the scale of the demonstrations reflects pent-up anger at the increasing erosion of the freedoms and autonomy promised to the Chinese territory for 50 years when it was handed back by the British government in 1997. Hong Kong's independent legal system is the foundation of its prosperity and its unique identity within China.
In the last few years, the Hong Kong government has disqualified elected lawmakers, banned a political party, jailed pro-democracy protest leaders, expelled a senior Financial Times journalist, and looked the other way when Beijing’s agents kidnapped a bookseller and a billionaire from Hong Kong.
Germany recently accepted the first ever political refugees from Hong Kong, two pro-independence activists who were charged with rioting, in a sign that the Western world no longer trusts the city’s vaunted legal system.
Whether skirmishing with police or standing in silent defiance, Hong Kongers are saying enough is enough. They cannot, and will not, take Beijing’s repression any more.
But, from the perspective of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, it is unacceptable to bow in the face of public pressure from Hong Kongers, and the international community.
For Beijing, it seems absurd that its own semi-autonomous territory can extradite criminal suspects to the US but not to mainland China.
Facing a deepening economic and technological conflict with the US and the West more generally, the defiance of Hong Kongers seems to Beijing to be part of a wider plot to undermine China’s rise.
The reality is that Hong Kong has long enjoyed a contradictory existence as a relatively free and partially democratic city within the world’s most powerful dictatorship.
An ever more assertive China, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, is not willing to let Hong Kong become a base to destabilise the mother country.
But, at the same time, as the outside world has become much more critical of China’s aggressive external posture, Western governments are no longer willing to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s efforts to roll back Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy.
This city, which has long been a place for dialogue between China and the West, thus finds itself in the uncomfortable position of being on the front line of a new global ideological struggle.
No party can wish away this conflict, which reflects local concerns and the new era of great power competition we are entering.
The UK, and other Western powers with a vested interest in Hong Kong, should speak up in defence of what has made this place a great world city.