Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

The people of Hong Kong have secured a remarkable victory, but they have far more cause to worry than to celebrate. A cloud of anxiety hangs over Hong Kong’s future.

Frida Ghitis

Their odds are daunting, their enemies powerful. But their freedom is at stake; that’s why Hong Kongers turned out in force against a controversial extradition bill last month, surprising even themselves with the strength of their voice in a weekend protest. Organizers estimated that an incredible two million people (police said hundreds of thousands) – out of just over seven million residents – filled the streets, sending a message not only to their local government but to the regime in Beijing, which is steadily eroding their rights. The people won a battle against the local government, but the real threat comes from a far more implacable force.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is backing away from the bill that sparked the biggest protests in the territory’s history and Sunday night made a rare apology for “deficiencies” in the government’s work. But Hong Kong’s troubles are nowhere near over.

Under the 1997 handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China, Beijing is not supposed to take full control of the semiautonomous territory until 2047, but the Chinese government is already nibbling at the edges of autonomy, freedom and human rights in Hong Kong.

When Lam tried to push through a bill that would have allowed local authorities to extradite criminal suspects to China, the people knew what that meant. It would open the door to Beijing snapping up democracy advocates, dissidents and other critics. Justice in China is subservient to the regime and the ruling Communist Party.

The wave of protests began just days after the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when China’s rulers cracked down on pro-democracy protests, killing hundreds and possibly thousands (according to Amnesty International and others) in the center of the capital.

The protesters in Hong Kong are under no illusions about their foes. That makes their courage all the more inspiring. They know that China today is under the control of the most powerful and ruthless leader in decades in President Xi Jinping.

Xi has assumed full control of the party. He has managed to eliminate the tradition of term limits. He could stay in power for the rest of his life. International human rights monitors say the rights situation has become far worse under his rule. The outlook, says Human Rights Watch, “is grim.”

China’s president has presided over the building of a network of internment camps filled with what the Defense Department has said is as many as three million ethnic-minority, mostly Uighur, Muslims in Xinjiang Province. The Chinese government calls the camps “education training centers,” part of a counter-terrorism campaign. Critics calls them concentration camps.

In the rest of China, citizens enjoy rising living standards, but no political freedoms, no free press, restricted access to the internet and continuous surveillance. Those who insist on criticizing the regime suffer terrible fates. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died while serving a prison sentence for demanding an end to one-party rule.

The 1997 agreement is supposed to guarantee that Hong Kong residents, in contrast to the rest of the country, will enjoy freedom of the press, of expression and assembly, among others. But democratic freedoms have already been shrinking in the territory, along with the space for dissent.

Beijing has been steadily capturing control of political levers. Lam’s undemocratic election in 2017 came as a sharp blow. The chief executive is chosen by an election committee that has come to be dominated by Beijing loyalists. Lam was viewed as Beijing’s candidate, Beijing’s “puppet,” some called her. Now protesters are demanding she step down.

In the past year, a pro-independence political party was banned, an unprecedented move. Authorities claimed that party posed a “threat to national security,” a charge critics say opened the door to other political constraints in the name of security. Also unprecedented was Beijing’s barring two Hong Kong legislators from joining the legislature. The two, democratically elected, had refused to swear allegiance to China and held up a flag reading, “Hong Kong is not China.” Separately, authorities refused to renew the visa of a Financial Times correspondent after he hosted a leading independence activist at the Foreign Correspondents Club despite protests from China’s government.

When China agreed to allow Hong Kong its freedom more than 20 years ago, it had much more to gain from preserving international standards there. Just after the handover, Hong Kong, a global financial center, accounted for 16% of China’s GDP. If rule of law disappeared there, China stood to suffer painful economic losses. But China’s booming economy means Hong Kong now accounts for barely 3% of China’s GDP. Beijing has much less to lose from cracking down.

Despite the risk, the people of Hong Kong know their future is at stake, and they seem determined to safeguard their freedoms.

The last time they demanded stronger democracy, in 2014, the so-called umbrella movement failed and many went to prison. This weekend, one of the leaders of that protest, Joshua Wong, was freed from prison and headed directly to the new demonstration, undeterred, demanding direct election of the chief executive, and other protections for the territory’s fragile freedoms.

He also asked that the US approve the bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which puts the US on record supporting democracy, human rights, and rule of law in Hong Kong, and calls for sanctions if China curtails them. Members of Congress have just reintroduced the bill.

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    The path ahead for the people of Hong Kong is daunting. Amid the justified anxiety, they have shown extraordinary courage. After all, they’ve seen the fate of others who dared to challenge Beijing. At a time when the US President seems sharply focused on trade with China, it’s good to see Congress taking action to support Hong Kong’s freedoms, and its people’s high-stakes bravery.