07/01/2013 01:07 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

Wake Up, Beijing -- It's Hong Kong Calling

If you've been following the Edward Snowden case, you've probably seen Hong Kong pop up in the news. The small, economically-prosperous Chinese territory doesn't typically make headlines. That may be about to change.

Today, tens if not hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents came out to demand that Beijing live up to its promise to allow direct elections in the territory. (Estimates of the yearly march always vary; protesters claimed 430,000, while police estimated 66,000.) July 1 was the sixteenth anniversary of the territory's return to Chinese rule, and it was intended to be a day of celebration, national unity, and pride. But to Beijing's surprise, Hong Kong's citizens continue to use the day to remind the authorities that they deserve -- are owed -- the chance to determine their own political fate.

Hong Kong was a British protectorate but reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Britain returned the concession without a fight, imposing one thorny condition: Hong Kong should be guaranteed its own political system, which included British traditions of democracy and rule-of-law.

Beijing agreed, believing it could shape Hong Kong's evolution after it reverted to Chinese control. Chinese officials initially went out of their way to demonstrate that Hong Kong's distinct society and economic system would continue unmolested, and talk of mass exodus, political crackdowns, and capital flight faded. But behind the scenes, Beijing's proxies began rolling out measures to ensure the region would do as directed, even as it preserved the facade of autonomy.

These early efforts backfired. In July 2003, the supposedly "apolitical" Hong Kongers rallied in strength to protest Beijing's controversial anti-subversion law, which would have made it a crime to oppose the central government. Chinese officials were shocked to see 500,000 people turn out in the streets -- about 8% of the population, and more than the number initially occupying Tiananmen Square in 1989. Hong Kong's public defiance forced Beijing to back off from the legislation -- showing China's own citizens, almost for the first time, what it looked like for the powerful Communist Party to lose a political battle.

Shaken, Beijing called for a complete reevaluation of its Hong Kong-focused xitong (policy system). It elevated the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs portfolio to the Politburo Standing Committee level, and it created dozens of new Hong Kong-focused policy institutes within government-sponsored universities and think tanks. It infused its Hong Kong-based representatives with new blood and new money, and mandated that they report back on developments and new tactics to influence local politics. And it started bold new efforts to cultivate political loyalty at the grassroots, including a "national education curriculum" modeled after the one used in the mainland.

Initially, this new approach tipped the scales in Beijing's favor. Hong Kong's opposition parties remained fractious and divided, unwilling or unable to unify behind a single platform. Pro-Beijing parties reclaimed the majority in Hong Kong's Legislative Council, and appeared both more organized and more in touch with ordinary citizens. Even those that supported universal suffrage grew exasperated with the disorganized pan-democrats, who seemed unable to deliver either political reform or tangible benefits.

But in March, something unexpected happened. Inspired by the U.S. "Occupy" movement, University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting proposed a campaign he called "Occupy Central": a one-and-a-half year push for universal suffrage, culminating in a mass rally to shut down Hong Kong's "Central" district on July 1, 2014. Like the U.S. movement, Occupy Central is not tied to any political party; it has leaders but no hierarchy, participants but no backbone, ideas but no dogma. This makes it unpredictable and very difficult for Beijing to track. And without the anti-subversion law in place, there is no legal basis in Hong Kong to block or break up these meetings. Beijing's hands are tied, and it is worried.

It should be. Identity in Hong Kong is complicated, but a recent poll by the University of Hong Kong found that fewer people than ever identified as a "Chinese citizen" -- and the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to identify as a "Hong Kong citizen." This corresponds to a remarkable drop in public confidence in Beijing's policies, to a level not seen since the protests in 2003-04. Only a third (33%, +/-3%) responded that they were "proud of becoming a national citizen of China." And a March straw poll by the South China Morning Post showed that while most were reluctant to join Occupy Central, they also disagreed with Beijing's position on Hong Kong's political evolution.

Protesters today were motivated by a variety of complaints and most were not specifically part of the Occupy Central movement -- yet nearly all support the push for universal suffrage and blame Beijing's anointed Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying. In 2004 Beijing was forced to remove the unpopular Tung Chee-Hwa, and is loathe to do so again -- which means the protesters may actually have even more punch. Chinese officials can no longer make the problem go away by simply dismissing an unpopular official.

Some in the mainland, baffled by what they see as an unexplainable lack of patriotism, are blaming the protests on the "black hand" of foreign influence. This could not be happening naturally, they rationalize, so it must be a foreign conspiracy. But this mindset will only keep them divorced from the reality in Hong Kong-- and possibly their own backyard. A surprisingly sympathetic piece from the nationalistic Global Times suggests that there may be significant interest among mainland Chinese readers, even quoting Occupy Central's founder to say that the central government could use Hong Kong as a test field for China's own political reform.

So what comes next? Beijing is in a difficult position: they hold most of the cards, but don't really understand the game. They are attempting to influence a political system very different than that imposed by the Communist Party on the mainland. Yet, despite their discomfort, they have resisted the temptation to move away from the "one country, two systems" framework or the 2017 date for universal suffrage. This may be enlightened self-interest, but we should not forget the popular alternative: selfish stupidity.

The real test will come as the clock ticks down toward July 1, 2014. If Occupy Central can generate enough unity among the people and Hong Kong politicians -- and remain peaceful -- it may actually force Beijing's hand and bring about real change. That might not be so bad for Beijing. A chief executive elected through popular vote would cease to be Beijing's responsibility -- leaving Hong Kong residents to squabble over their own political decisions, as we do in the U.S..