In the 1980s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed the notion of "one country, two systems" for Hong Kong's return from British control. While formally part of the People's Republic, Hong Kong would be allowed to preserve its more open political and economic system.
The arrangement has worked relatively well since the formal handover to Chinese control in 1997, but lately, the future of the deal has been called into question. In early 2012, Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest remarks by a prominent Chinese professor who referred to the city's inhabitants as "dogs" still harboring a colonial mindset. The remarks came in the wake of a University of Hong Kong survey that found that only 16.6 percent of residents now identify themselves as Chinese -- the lowest number since 1997.
Tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland in recent years have taken on an ugly nationalist edge. Hong Kongers sometimes refer to mainland visitors as "locusts" and decry the common practice of pregnancy tourism, in which mainland mothers come to Hong Kong to give birth so that their children will have coveted residency permits. In one emblematic incident, a cell-phone video went viral of passengers on a Hong Kong subway berating a mainland woman for letting her daughter eat on a train. The argument became so heated that one of the passengers pulled the train's emergency brake to summon the authorities.
This was all prelude to this fall, when the city-state erupted over a "moral and national education" plan for school curricula announced by Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed chief executive. The new curriculum was meant to promote China-wide patriotism, but many Hong Kongers saw it as a plan to brainwash their children and dumb down their schools, which are ranked among the world's best. Angry crowds, estimated at 100,000 by organizers and 27,500 by the police, took to the streets in September, even after the government backed down and removed the curriculum. In one telling sign of the times, Hong Kongers have begun waving the city's colonial-era flag at anti-China rallies.
Over the past year, Beijing's saber rattling in the South China Sea has become a national preoccupation. But perhaps we should be paying more attention to what's happening in China's own backyard.