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An experimental economist could not have planned events better if she had tried. The world has three leading international financial centres. Two, New York and London, are serving as controls, while the third, Hong Kong, has started chipping away at its independent judiciary, which is the ultimate guarantor of civil liberties including a free press, freedom of expression and an open internet.

That will make the semi-autonomous Chinese territory a test of whether civil freedoms, free information flows and the rule-of-law are in fact necessary components of a smoothly functioning global finance hub.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the Chinese Communist party has embarked on this experiment in recent weeks as its patience frays with the demonstrations that first erupted in June in opposition to a controversial extradition bill and are now demanding universal suffrage in the former UK colony. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the outcome, as China and the US square up for a century-defining contest between their diametrically opposed political and economic systems.

President Xi Jinping is betting that he can rein in Hong Kong’s stubbornly independent jurists without damaging the city’s role as a crucial fundraising centre for China’s leading state-owned enterprises and private-sector companies. If he is successful, it will reinforce already sky-high levels of confidence among Beijing officials about the superiority of their governance model, especially when they look at the impeachment circus that currently has Washington in thrall.

Late last month the Communist party’s Central Committee issued a series of vague threats that suggested Beijing was poised to tighten its grip on Hong Kong. Then, on November 19, a spokesperson for China’s rubber stamp parliament criticised a recent Hong Kong court ruling that invalidated the Emergency Regulations Ordinance enacted last month by the territory’s embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam. Only the National People’s Congress, the spokesperson said, could determine whether Hong Kong laws accord with the territory’s mini-constitution, or Basic Law.

While the NPC has long been recognised as the ultimate authority on the Basic Law, it had never before suggested that lower courts could not do so as well. Indeed they have been doing just that ever since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Ms Lam had used the ordinance to implement a ban on wearing masks supported by hardliners in Beijing, who thought it would help police to identify and arrest people participating in unauthorised assemblies. They also wanted Hong Kong’s chief executive to have the flexibility to take even more draconian measures if needed to restore order.

So far, from China’s perspective, so good. The recent tougher signals from Beijing did not dissuade investors from snapping up a $13bn secondary offering in Hong Kong this week from Alibaba, the Chinese tech group whose main listing is in New York.

Alibaba’s long-awaited Hong Kong offering came after China’s securities regulator began to urge overseas-listed Chinese tech champions to hui gui, or return home. As one party official puts it, if China’s best companies aren’t listed on local stock exchanges then the country’s capital markets will be “doomed”.

Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire founder and recently retired chairman, is a loyal party member. So it is not surprising that his company would push ahead with what was advertised as a “vote of confidence” in Hong Kong even as tear gas wafted through the streets.

There have not been destabilising capital outflows from the territory since the protests began. And for all the periodic outbreaks of violence over the past six months, the benchmark Hang Seng index is down just 0.5 per cent since the protest movement erupted in mid-June.

But Beijing should not interpret the relative resilience of Hong Kong’s financial sector to date as a sign that it has an opportunity to tighten further its grip over the territory by bringing the judiciary to heel.

The Chinese Communist party has crushed plenty of rebellions during its 70 years in charge of the world’s most populous country. However, it has no clue what to do when confronted by a protest movement that, because of the Hong Kong’s unique historical circumstances, enjoys the protections afforded by a free media, open internet and — for now — an independent legal system.

For Mr Xi and other party leaders whose careers have been spent in a political system where might makes right, it is inconceivable that their authority could ever be constrained by a mere court, as Ms Lam’s emergency powers were. In the parallel universe that they inhabit, courts and judges exist to aid and abet one-party rule, not to protect people from its excesses.

But such institutional checks helped to make Hong Kong, during 151 years of largely prosperous British administration, an attractive destination for millions of hard-working and entrepreneurial Chinese fleeing autocratic mainland regimes, including that of Mr Xi’s political idol, Mao Zedong.

Beijing, after ruling the territory for 22 increasingly dysfunctional years, should think twice before gutting them.

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