On June 30, 1997 — a gray, wet evening in Hong Kong — Great Britain was preparing to lower its flag and set the sun on its empire. "Today is cause for celebration, not sorrow," proclaimed Chris Patten, the last British governor of a territory his nation had held for much of the previous 156 years. "Now, Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong."

Perhaps it seemed so, but formally the colony was being returned to China, a communist country where a democracy movement had been brutally crushed just eight years prior. The agreement called for a unique arrangement — "one country, two systems" — in which Hong Kong would maintain significant autonomy, with its social freedoms and capitalist economic system intact, until 2047. There'd be 50 years to win the war of ideas.

Beijing wasn't really willing to wait. It resisted political reforms and stacked the deck of Hong Kong's leadership. It began to reel in political freedoms, leading to the massive protests of 2014 and 2019. And this week, precisely 23 years after the handover, it imposed legislation with sharp teeth that is expected to make Hong Kongers heed "national security" rules much like those enforced on the mainland.

In 2017, 20 years after the handover, Patten said he still had "a lot of confidence in Hong Kong. But that's not because of Beijing, and it's not because of London. It's because of people in Hong Kong themselves."

And if they're silenced?