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OPINION

Does Hong Kong have a future?

China’s move to exert more control over the former British colony raises worries about a democratic haven of free expression.

Protesters gathered in Hong Kong on Friday for a march protesting Beijing’s proposed new security measures.
Protesters gathered in Hong Kong on Friday for a march protesting Beijing’s proposed new security measures.LAM YIK FEI/NYT

Drivers traveling between Mainland China and Hong Kong have to make a quick mental switch as soon as they cross the border from Shenzhen. In China, traffic is to the right. In Hong Kong, a former British colony that reverted to Chinese control only in 1997, traffic still drives on the left.

It’s a small quirk — but emblematic of the huge political, legal, and cultural gulf that still separates the city from the mainland. This week, though, the territory’s special status looks more tenuous than ever.

The communist authorities in Beijing decided this week to take direct control of aspects of Hong Kong’s legal system, a move that amounts to much more than just an attack on the territory’s pro-democracy movement, which organized a string of protests last year and faced brutal crackdowns. It’s also raising the worries that China is trying to snuff out everything that makes the territory such a distinctive global city. The changes would “end Hong Kong as we know it,” said one CNN analyst.

Indeed, the move looks like a bad omen, a move against all the freedoms Hong Kong enjoys. The territory is simply a more liberal environment, with free-speech protection and multi-candidate elections, than any of the rest of China.

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For those qualities to fade away would be a loss for the world. And, frankly, a loss for Beijing. China is trying to put on a friendlier face internationally, sending billions of dollars in aid overseas. But killing off such a vibrant city, and turning it into just another authoritarian outpost, would send a message to the world much louder than money.

▪ Two developments at opposite ends of the United States showed why college admission exams like the SAT and ACT are suddenly in such trouble, and how the pathway to selective colleges may be changing fast. In a video call with prosecutors in Boston, actress Lori Loughlin and her husband pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for their role in the “Varsity Blues” scandal, which involved bribing colleges to admit children of the wealthy and helping them cheat on standardized admissions tests. In California, meanwhile, the state university system announced it would phase out the use of the SAT and ACT scores in admission. Critics have long contended that the tests confer an advantage on wealthier students, whose families can spend money on tutoring to prepare them. Of course, the vast majority of those families don’t resort to outright cheating. But the Varsity Blues case highlighted just how vulnerable the admission system is to manipulation and should inspire other colleges to do more to ensure their admissions process can’t be gamed.

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▪ The Trump administration signaled it intends to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, a pact signed in 1992 that allows countries to make reconnaissance flights over each other’s territories. The treaty was intended to increase transparency about military capabilities and reduce the chance of misunderstandings and miscalculations that can lead to wars. Aspects of the Trump team’s rationale sounded reasonable: the White House said Russia was not complying with the treaty, having abused its privileges in U.S. airspace while blocking American flights over certain Russian sites. The administration also says it is willing to renegotiate the deal and hopes to bring China into a future pact as well. We hope that claim is being made in good faith, because this would be the third arms-control treaty Trump has abandoned. If he wants to leave the world safer than he found it, Trump can’t simply tear up treaties he says are outdated. He has to replace them with new ones.

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▪ Remember the gas tax hike proposed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives? Before the pandemic struck, it appeared that Beacon Hill was finally starting to get real about raising revenue for the state’s tattered transportation system. The House bill called for a 5-cent-per-gallon tax hike to fund roads and transportation. It was unclear whether the Senate would follow suit, and the economic upheaval of the last two months has clouded the picture even more. But in a speech Thursday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the tax increase is still necessary. Raising any kind of tax in the midst of an economic collapse might be a tough sell, but if DeLeo’s speech is any indication, the idea isn’t dead yet.