It must have seemed like a miracle to watch Hong Kong emerge from its ignominous beginnings to become one of the great cities of the world. The speck of land taken at gunpoint by the British after the Opium Wars grew into the most vibrant sanctuary in all of Asia for merchants, writers and dissidents to create, make money and learn to tolerate each others' points of view. For Australians, what was once a shopping destination is now home to 70,000 expatriates and a crucial gateway to mainland China and the region.
The miracle ingredient which distinguished Hong Kong was not democracy, which Britain refused to deliver, but rule-of-law. The freedoms that came from clean, impartial and independently administered courts enabled Hong Kong's unique mingling of Chinese traditional folk society and Western civil society. It produced global banks, vibrant newspapers, thriving businesses and also formidable police and impartial courts that were envied by nations that had been far more generously endowed.
When the integrity of Hong Kong's legal institutions were threatened by corruption in the 1970s, the city simply invented a new one. "A new and potent force of public opinion emerged," says the Independent Commission Against Corruption on its website, explaining how it came about. "People pressed incessantly for the government to take decisive action to fight graft."
The legacy of ICAC is enough alone for the people of NSW to invest themselves in the future of Hong Kong's rule-of-law.
The irony, and tragedy, is that the legal freedoms that made Hong Kong great were also vulnerabilities that the Chinese Communist Party could patiently exploit. As Kang Zhengguo from Yale University told a conference in April, the party established "networks of subversive agents, planting the seeds for the future erosion of Hong Kong freedoms even while taking advantage of them".
Those seeds of subversion lay mostly dormant or at least unnoticed for nearly one-third of the 50-year period in which the party promised to leave Hong Kong's system basically unchanged after the 1997 handover. When those seeds sprouted this Hong Kong summer, however, the impact was more immediately chilling and destructive than almost anybody feared.
Last month Beijing announced that its long-awaited procedure for "democratically" electing the chief executive from 2017 would exclude candidates it did not like. The harsher-than-expected decision led directly to the "Occupy Central" civil disobedience campaign which attracted the world's attention on Sunday, after riot police failed to disperse protestors with tear gas.
The greater tragedy, in the Herald's view, has been the systematic but largely silent erosion of the institutions of civil society that made it safe for the party to make that announcement. Police investigations have been compromised, triads have mobilised and even the city's great multinational banks – HSBC and Standard Chartered – have allegedly been co-opted to squeeze the financial lifelines of pro-democracy voices, as the Herald revealed in relation to the Apple Daily's Jimmy Lai on May 31.
The pressure has been too much for some who had been holding out. Tony Tsoi Tung-ho, publisher of a thriving online news and commentary website called House News, abruptly closed his website on July 20 and replaced it with this online message: "A wave of white terror envelops this society, and I feel it. And, as a businessman who often travels up to the mainland, I have to admit every time I cross the border I would get jittery. Am I just being paranoid? That feeling is inexplicable to outsiders. But what unsettles me most is my family also feels this pressure, and they worry about me all the time ... That breaks my heart."
The pressure on those who continue to hold out, most notably Mr Lai, is growing by the day. On July 1, the anniversary of the handover, sophisticated actors hacked into his systems. Last month they leaked the contents of (legal) political donations to Beijing-friendly media. Most recently, and most worrying, ICAC – the organic achievement of Hong Kong's civil society – raided his home.
The Herald urges authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing to respond to the weekend's peaceful protests in a peaceful manner that is worthy of China's great power aspirations. And we firmly stand with the vast majority of Hong Kong's 7.5 million people who are fighting to defend the institutions that have made their great society work. On a wider view, with implications for people everywhere, they are fighting to extract a cost, however inadequate, when China's current rulers attempt to make the world safer for themselves by eroding the ideals and practice of the rule of law.