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Mainlandization is what Hong Kong’s residents call the attempts by their largely Beijing-backed city government to change its laws and institutions to resemble the much more authoritarian practices of mainland Chinese cities, despite a treaty that binds Hong Kong to its legal and democratic distinctiveness until 2047.

It is the threat of mainlandization that has brought hundreds of thousands of brave Hong Kongers to the streets this week. By shutting down the city through sheer force of numbers, they delayed the passage of a law that would allow residents to be deported to the mainland without due process.

You could see mainlandization in action in the shocking response to those masses of citizens by the Hong Kong Police Force, which sent more than 5,000 elite officers to fire thousands of rounds of crippling riot-control ammunition and tear gas directly at protesters in tactics that hospitalized scores. That sort of disproportionate reaction, in a city whose authorities have long tolerated expressions of dissent, appears to be a direct response to Beijing authorities who have criticized the city’s police and judges for failing to crush protest movements.

But the term mainlandization fails to capture the wider scope of what is being done to Hong Kong – and, simultaneously, to cities on the Chinese mainland. While the island city is constitutionally unique, the pressures it is facing from Beijing can only be understood in the context of the much larger crackdown on cities being carried out under Xi Jinping’s presidency – a crackdown that is threatening China’s greatest source of progress and growth, the independence of its cities.

In the years after Mao Zedong’s rural-obsessed leadership was replaced with the market-driven authoritarianism of the 1990s and 2000s, communist China became fundamentally a nation of cities. While the Chinese Communist Party’s decisions were theoretically all-encompassing, in practice the lives of a billion people were governed, on a day-to-day basis, by local authorities – and those local authorities, especially in the big cities, tended to have their own ways of doing things, often very different from Beijing’s.

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As the sociologist Xuefei Ren has observed in her studies of Chinese urbanism, city governments became “increasingly powerful and entrepreneurial by actively supervising, stimulating and participating in their local economic affairs, especially through leasing land and attracting business investment.” After 2003, city-dwellers were allowed some democratic self-governance through homeowners’ associations. Protests by residents were often addressed not by crushing them, but by compromising with protesters, making deals or buying them off.

There was intense competition among China’s larger cities to attract top talent and investment, leading to wide divergences in policy approaches and forms of experimentation that Canadians might call “competitive federalism.” The cities of the southern mainland tolerated a high degree of media freedom, while others widened citizenship rights and acknowledged property taxpayers’ rights.

The rise to power of Mr. Xi has put an end to much of that urban diversity. His first signature act as President, in 2013, was to crush and imprison Bo Xilai, who as the independent-minded leader of the large self-governing city of Chongqing had established an alternative form of neo-Maoist communism and novel social programs that had made him a rival to Mr. Xi.

That was followed by a vast anti-corruption drive that has prosecuted hundreds of thousands of officials in many cities. While it has had little measurable effect on actual corruption (China’s ranking on international corruption indexes has not improved much since 2012), it has quashed the independent, competitive spirit of local government.

The German political scientist Sebastian Heilmann, in his new book Red Swan: How Unorthodox Policy-Making Facilitated China’s Rise, finds that much of China’s economic and poverty-ending success is rooted in this history of competitive policy experimentation at the local and regional level.

But under Mr. Xi’s leadership, this has fallen prey to “the systematic risks of a top-down policy process.” The sort of local-level "policy pilots” that defined this system have fallen, Prof. Heilmann found, from about 500 per year in 2010 to only 70 in 2016 (and certainly even fewer now).

Hong Kong is both an exception to this ultra-centralizing trend and its most distressing example. The island remains governed under the “One China, two systems” agreement negotiated in the 1990s, which grants it an independent judiciary and governance system.

This independence – and especially the sense that Hong Kong has a fair and transparent legal and judicial system very different from Beijing’s – is what keeps the island city a successful hub of banking, finance and industry, and keeps its middle class from fleeing abroad.

But it also makes Hong Kong a visible exception to Mr. Xi’s homogenizing norm, one whose existence is subject to heavy censorship. What is happening is not so much mainlandization as Xi-ification.

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