Proclaiming the foundation of the Peoples' Republic of China from Beijing's Tiananmen Gate in 1949, Mao Zedong said "The Chinese people have stood up."

Today in Hong Kong, 65 years later, people in their tens of thousands have stood up, too, ignoring Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's order to "Stop this protest immediately."

These Chinese people are hoping that, this time, power will grow not from the barrel of a gun, as Mao also famously said, but from the umbrellas they carry to protect themselves from the seasonal downpours and the pepper spray and tear gas rained on them by armed police.

The initial deployment of armed riot squads in combat fatigues, helmets and gas masks on Sunday ended up bringing out enormous crowds sympathetic to the students who have been at the forefront of a campaign of civil disobedience at its most civil.

Lining up quietly to take the subway to the demonstrations, separating their garbage for recycling and apologizing for the inconvenience they are causing, students have been protesting against the central government's decision to rig the election of a new chief executive in 2017.

Only candidates approved by Beijing will be allowed to run for the top job.

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A protester raises his umbrellas in front of tear gas fired by riot police to disperse protesters blocking the main street Hong Kong's central financial district on Sunday. Police have since stopped their more aggressive tactics. (Tyrone Siu / Reuters)

Many in Hong Kong feel this decision reneges on the promise China made when it took over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, a promise of "one country two systems" with "a high degree of autonomy" and "Hong Kong people running Hong Kong."

But this confrontation is about more than who will take over as Hong Kong's top elected official in three years' time.

At its heart, it is about whether China's leaders will allow Hong Kong to strengthen its institutions of democracy and its rule of law, which it needs if it is to continue as a financial powerhouse and one of the greatest cities in the world.

Two courts, two systems

The alternative, driven by the fear in Beijing that more democracy in Hong Kong would lead to a contagious demand for the same in the rest of the country, is to gradually transform the territory into just another city in southern China.

Two court decisions illustrate the difference.

As the police in Hong Kong began their ill-judged, heavy-handed and, as it turned out, counterproductive confrontation with protesters on Friday, they grabbed up a prominent student leader, Joshua Wong, and held him for 40 hours.

On Sunday, a High Court judge ordered Wong released unconditionally, granting a writ of habeas corpus, the ancient provision in British common law against unlawful detention. He also scolded the police for having held Wong for so long.

Meanwhile, five days earlier, in the province of Xinjiang in Western China, the Intermediate People's Court in Urumqi sentenced Ilham Tohti, a professor of economics, to life in prison.

It also confiscated all his assets, so as to leave his wife and young children destitute.

Tohti, who taught at Minzu University in Beijing, had been a prominent spokesman for the rights of Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang who speak a language related to Turkish.

Some of the more militant Uighurs, who have been opposed to Chinese rule in Xinjiang, have increasingly been resorting to violence for their cause, including the gruesome murders of railway passengers in the southwestern city of Kunming in March.

China Minority Scholar

In this 2013 photo, Ilham Tohti, an outspoken scholar of China's Turkic Uighur ethnic minority, is interviewed at his home in Beijing. Tohti was sentenced to life in prison in September 2014, a decision that drew international condemnation. (The Associated Press)

Last week alone 50 people died violent deaths in Xinjiang itself.

For his part, Tohti has an international reputation as a constructive advocate of more autonomy and respect for human rights in Xinjiang as possible solutions to the deteriorating situation there.

In his writing, and in many interviews with foreign journalists, he has always rejected violence, and has never advocated independence for the region.

The lesson here is that, in China a moderate academic can be sentenced to life imprisonment, with his family impoverished, for the crime of speaking and writing about human rights.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, a young man who has gone one step further, by organizing (so far peaceful) anti-government demonstrations, is free to continue doing so because the rule of law is still respected.

Echoes of Tiananmen

Joshua Wong, who turns eighteen in two weeks, was born eight months before the historic handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

His confidence and optimism that protest can make a difference are typical of demonstrators in their teens and twenties who have grown up in a place where the law means something.

They see something of a victory in the government's decision to withdraw the riot police after their presence turned student demonstrations into a mass uprising.

Hong Kong people of all ages have now joined the protests, but those who remember taking to the streets in 1989 to voice their support for students in Tiananmen Square, also remember that there were times when those students, too, seemed to be winning and the authorities retreating.

And they remember the disastrous final outcome.

In Chinese Communist Party decision-making one consideration trumps all others. Whatever the party judges to be a threat to its grip on power will be crushed, no matter what the other consequences.

China's censors and internet watchdogs have stepped up measures to prevent news of Hong Kong's show of defiant people power reaching citizens on the mainland.

If the party comes to see this struggle over the future of Hong Kong as a struggle over the future of China itself, there are perilous times ahead.