(WSJ Saturday Interview) China's New Freedom Fighters

Hong Kong has beautiful vistas, per capita income of $38,000 and partial autonomy from China that includes broad civil liberties, but on Tuesday it also had as many as 500,000 people in the streets in the largest public rally in a decade. Days before, 800,000 Hong Kongers””nearly a quarter of the electorate””ignored government warnings and voted in a mock referendum calling for democratic rights.

These developments in a vital economic hub have China displeased. The Beijing government tried to head them off last month by clarifying its Hong Kong policy in an official white paper, but the effect was to highlight Beijing’s heavy hand, stoking local anger. Soon cyberattacks targeted the online polling system of the pro-democracy referendum. And as Hong Kongers rallied on Tuesday, China’s mainland Web censors were in overdrive, erasing even more material than on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre last month.

Beijing won’t find much relief ahead if Benny Tai has his way. Over the past year, the youthful 49-year-old law professor has gone from leading legal seminars for Hong Kong civil servants to being branded an “enemy of the state” by Beijing-backed media. His offense: founding a group called Occupy Central with Love and Peace, which threatens civil disobedience in Hong Kong’s main business district unless China delivers free elections for the local chief executive in 2017. Mr. Tai believes that if 10,000 people credibly threaten to paralyze the city’s commercial core, Beijing will sue for peace.

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