The first time I entered Hong Kong was following a 48-hour train ride. Peeling layer after layer of Shenyang coal-saturated clothing off as we left the bitter cold of northeastern China for the semi-tropical climes of the Fragrant Harbor. After walking across the border, I found myself suddenly assaulted by the noise of jackhammers and confused by orange cones, construction tape and warning signs about men working. For nearly two years I had watched thousands of workers chipping at rocks and concrete with hammer and chisel; to get to my favorite stores in Shenyang (same population as Hong at that time) I needed to negotiate trenches and flying debris and to my delight, watch workmen throw the occasional shovel full of dirt into city buses as they passed.

Going from the Mainland to Hong Kong in 1989 was severe culture shock. Celebrated foreigners teaching English in China, in Hong Kong we felt dirty, poor, under-dressed and like folk who had just stumbled off a train from the countryside. We were overwhelmed by the availability of goods and gorged ourselves on familiar foods. It was something of a similar feeling when six months later we entered Hong Kong again (the dirty and under-dressed part), but this time people noticed us, plying us with questions about what we had seen and experienced during the student protests and government crackdown in May and June.

I have never lived in Hong Kong, but during the past 30 years I have passed through the city and visited dozens of times. For many years leaving the Mainland and entering Hong Kong brought a sigh of relief—the stress of meetings, formal dinners, negotiations, teacher problems and decision-making was behind me, and I was on my way home. I would often just walk the streets, shoulder my way through markets, enjoy the smells, sights, lights, wealth—all that makes this one of the world’s unique cities. Hong Kong is never boring, but it is exhausting. At times it feels as if all that matters is wealth and a pace of life that is beyond hectic, but there is also a heart here that beats deep.

In 1997 Britain renounced its rights to Hong Kong Island and the other parts it had annexed over the years and returned all to China. At first Hong Kong was a prime destination for the mainlanders who could afford a tour package. It was very easy to recognize the new tourists as they stumbled their way about, hands behind their backs, gazing at the buildings, lights, restaurants and examining all the stuff they someday hoped to buy. How times have changed. Today the general reaction of many visitors is a stifled yawn. After all, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and a bunch of other massive cities most Westerners have never heard of (ok, now you have heard of Wuhan) have their own skyscrapers and newly created wealth that rival Hong Kong. Anything sold in Hong Kong you can buy on Taobao (China’s Amazon), pay with your phone and have it delivered in a day. Even a city as far inland as Chongqing has its harbor, skyscrapers with night view and lasers, high-end malls and you can still get a cheap bowl of wonderfully spicy noodles on the corner, not available in Hong Kong.

On May 29 the American President announced that Hong Kong will be treated just like any other Chinese city with no special privileges. The change in status is tied to China’s new security “arrangement” with Hong Kong that further erodes Hong Kong’s autonomy. I’m not sure if it would be possible for 1.4 billion people to laugh at the same time, since most of them were sleeping when he gave his rant, but the sentiment on the mainland is “Well, of course you dummy—Hong Kong is a Chinese city, why should it be different from any other?”

I feel very sad for those in Hong Kong who are not happy with the U.S. decisions, who have watched their freedoms disappear, their “democracy” increasingly beholden to the dictates of Beijing. They are another big step to just being another city in China, subject to the same controls and censorship. I felt sad upon reading that Hong Kongers were suddenly downloading VPNs in expectation of further controls on the Internet. I admire the spirit of standing up to Beijing, the desperation of knowing that life is changing, but I also have a sense for how the average Zhou across the border views the protests. There is very little sympathy.

The other day I had a long discussion with several Chinese friends (visiting scholars) who have been in the U.S. since early January. They are trying to get back home, but their country isn’t making it easy for citizens to return from countries ridden with COVID-19. We talked about masks. They had many questions—why are Americans so opposed to wearing masks and doing the things needed to control the virus? Don’t Americans understand the virus? They get the part about freedom and individual rights, but if following those rights causes death and suffering, why do they insist on these “rights”? Don’t people understand that by following rules that things are better for everyone? Isn’t giving up some individual rights for the good of the country better than insisting on having your own way and being selfish? Do people not care that so many have died? I’m sure that many Americans would have excellent answers to all those questions—me, not so much.

The attitude toward those who are protesting and unhappy in Hong Kong is similar. From a mainland Chinese perspective those living in Hong Kong have many advantages, much going for them with their excellent education, legal system, health care, modern arts, wonderful transportation, security, opportunities for wealth and a good life. What in heaven’s name are they complaining about?

It’s about thousands of years of history. It’s about a Confucian mindset that rulers use to keep order and stability in the kingdom, that maintains a hierarchy in the family where each person understands their responsibilities. It’s listening and obedience from a very young age, and a responsibility of those in power, be it a father, mother, teacher, emperor or Xi Jinping to take care of those under them. If there is something bad in the country, like a virus, you may cover things up first in the hope that it will go away, but when it is clear there is a problem, it is the leader’s responsibility to make life safe for everyone, no matter the cost to individual freedom. From a mainland perspective, Hong Kong protestors are recalcitrant children who need to fall in line, understand how good they have it and not be concerned about what they might not have. They need to give up some things for the greater good, which of course may be defined by a privileged few at the very top, but just find your place and be quiet. The nail that sticks up will eventually get pounded down. It hurts, it may not be how we see things, but that is how it works when you are just another city in China.