The massive protests in Hong Kong over the past two weeks offer a lesson to everyone interested in China: that the widespread pessimism about China’s potential for change should not become, like the lighthearted optimism that preceded it, part of a deterministic mantra.

China is changing and will change, more than most of us can predict. And with a touch of humility, China watchers need to acknowledge that we have a long history of getting China wrong. We flip-flop from rapturous buoyancy about the place becoming an Asian version of the United States — either Christian (in the 19th century) or capitalist (in the late 20th) — to gloomy disenchantment about China as a hell-on-earth backwater (in the mid 20th century), or an Orwellian, artificial-intelligence-powered police state (today). The reality is much more nuanced — and nowhere is that clearer than in Hong Kong.

Though Britain ran Hong Kong for more than a century until 1997, Hong Kong has long bent the arc of China’s history. China’s first great modern revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen, attended medical school there in the 1890s and detonated a bomb on the colony’s streets. The city was home to secret societies devoted to overturning the Qing Dynasty, which was successfully ousted in 1911.

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Before World War II, the city sheltered Chinese dissidents, mostly members of the Chinese Communist Party. After China’s revolution in 1949, Hong Kong played a crucial role in keeping the Communist government afloat in the face of a U.S.-led embargo. With the launch of China’s economic reforms in 1978, Hong Kong entrepreneurs stoked the engine of China’s modernization, investing billions in China’s economy and turning China into the factory of the world.

In 1997, when communist China took over Hong Kong, many predicted that the freewheeling capitalist territory would change China more than China would change it. Hong Kong’s individual liberties, free press and fledgling experiment with democracy would seep across the border, optimists prophesied, and result in a freer China. But with time, pessimism proliferated as the Chinese Communist Party failed to embrace political and economic reform, especially after the rise of China’s current president, Xi Jinping.

Under Xi’s hard-line leadership, China blocked attempts in Hong Kong to directly elect the territory’s chief executive. Hong Kong’s government also outlawed a political party and jailed political activists. China even dispatched security agents to kidnap businessmen and other critics of China.

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But the pessimists failed to notice something. The people of Hong Kong have a remarkable track record of forcing their government and its overlords in Beijing to back down. On July 1, 2003, a massive demonstration prompted the Hong Kong government to shelve a national security law. In the summer of 2012, tens of thousands successfully protested an attempt to rewrite the territory’s school curriculum to portray the Chinese Communist Party in a better light and smear multi-party democracy.

And then, of course, we have this month’s protests, in which millions have taken to the streets to protest against a law that would allow Hong Kong to extradite alleged criminals to China, a move widely viewed in the territory as a gambit by the government to stifle dissent. On Father’s Day, an estimated 2 million Hong Kongers out of a total population of 7 million people hit the streets — making it, in percentage terms, arguably the biggest mass protest in history.

Anyone who buys into the Communist Party-led view of Hong Kong’s citizens as “economic animals,” uninterested in freedom and obsessed with material wealth, might do well to take a look at the video of Hong Kong legislator Wu Chi-wai walking through clouds of tear gas to confront Hong Kong’s police.

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It’s also important to note how seriously China is taking these protests. Beijing considers them so dangerous that its reaction is modeled after its response to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. Granted, China is not sending in the army to attack those marching; it can’t unless it wants to risk destroying Hong Kong, which remains crucial to China’s economic future.

But, as it did in 1989, China’s state-run media blamed the protests in Hong Kong on the United States. One pro-Beijing businessman even called for more patriotic education in Hong Kong, a nod to a program that the Communists launched after Tiananmen that was designed to inoculate Chinese citizens against pro-Western viewpoints and cultivate a resentful nationalism that remains prevalent today.

The party has also sought to distort all of the reporting about the protests inside China. On the same day that 2 million marched in Hong Kong against the extradition, the state-run China Daily reported that more than 30 people had gathered in front of the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong to protest American meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs.

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Nonetheless, word of the protests is getting through at least to some on the mainland. As a Chinese friend wrote on WeChat: “People from Hong Kong and mainland China are the same race but different types. The people of Hong Kong have guts.” So, one day, could the people of China.

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