Hong Kong’s democracy protests have been overrun in the headlines by the new, and in some cases deadly, coronavirus now spreading from the Chinese city of Wuhan.

But to wave aside Hong Kong’s massive democracy movement as last year’s news would be a terrible mistake. That movement has been the healthiest and most clarion response of modern times, anywhere on the planet, to the basic ailment long amplifying out of China — which, despite the current acute medical crisis, is not actually a viral disease, but instead the long-running tyranny of China’s communist party.

For Hong Kong, the medical face masks are nothing new. Huge numbers of Hong Kong’s protesters have been wearing them for months, not to ward off illness, but to protect themselves from identification and potential arrest by China’s quisling administration in Hong Kong.

China’s mishandling of its viral outbreak is now provoking questions abroad about the competence of its rulers and the reliability of whatever information they release. As the number of reported infections soars into the thousands, as the death toll enters triple digits and cases appear as far afield as Illinois, it’s clear that China’s authorities have botched this at every step.

First, they sat on the growing signs of an alarming new virus, doing little or nothing. Then they defaulted to blunt coercion, trying to forcefully quarantine more than 50 million people, while failing to provide them with the resources and leadership to fight the disease. Such projects as the high-speed construction of a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan for people stricken with the new virus make for impressive drone footage, but do not begin to address the real scale of the threat or the needs of millions of endangered and terrified people.

The core problem is that China, for all its high-tech gloss and high-speed trains, remains saddled with a communist-structured political system. However efficient this might look from afar, it is configured to promote repression, misery and ruinous error. Incentives are grossly skewed to promote the party line, never mind the realities. Inside mainland China, this is too often obscured by propaganda coupled with tight controls over any sign of dissent.

For clarity, turn to the recent scene in Hong Kong, where the British colonial legacy of rights and freedoms is under attack by China, but not yet gone. Calling on America and the rest of the free world to stand with them, Hong Kong’s people have been wielding their waning rights and freedoms via massive protests since last June, to signal a vital warning about China.

This new virus looks highly likely to discourage Hong Kong’s mass protests, damping mass gatherings in ways that Hong Kong’s riot police and threats from Beijing were unable to achieve. A few cases of the disease have already been confirmed in Hong Kong, where people remember the fight in 2003 against an earlier killer virus spun out of China, SARS. Before the democracy protests vanish entirely from the fickle world spotlight, it’s worth revisiting Hong Kong’s mighty call these past eight months for freedom.

For context, let’s note that Hong Kong is one of the world’s most resilient cities, a former British Crown Colony steeped in free enterprise and rule of law, configured to thrive even under semi-competent leadership. To push Hong Kong toward ruin requires a staggering degree of misrule. But under China’s tightening chokehold, that’s precisely what was happening, even before the Wuhan coronavirus barged onto the scene.

Last year, Hong Kong made world headlines with huge protests in which millions demanded the rights and freedoms China promised them under the terms of the 1997 British handover. The deal, which China dubbed “one country, two systems,” was that for 50 years after the handover, until at least 2047, Hong Kong, though under China’s flag, would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy.” Hong Kong’s people would retain all their accustomed rights and freedoms, leading to genuine democracy, with the right to elect their own leaders.

China has been violating every part of this pledge. Most significantly, Beijing has refused to liberalize an electoral system rigged to deliver a permanent pro-Beijing majority in the legislature and hand the choice of chief executive to Beijing, not to the voters of Hong Kong.

This setup means that if Hong Kongers don’t like what their government is doing, they have no serious recourse except to protest in the streets. That’s what ignited the mass protests last June, when Hong Kong’s Beijing-installed chief executive, Carrie Lam, tried to rush through the rubber-stamp legislature a bill allowing extradition to China.

Hong Kongers protested in record numbers, including a march of some 2 million people, which in a city of 7.5 million totaled more than a quarter of the population. When Lam suspended the bill but refused for almost three more months to withdraw it, protesters focused on the underlying problem: Hong Kong’s people have no institutional power to elect or remove their own chief executive, who in turn has little direct incentive to heed their demands.

So Hong Kong’s people carried on protesting for democracy. Since June, these protests have taken many forms, ranging from enormous peaceful rallies and marches, to flash protests, to citywide strikes, to fierce street battles with riot police, played out across the territory.

It’s been a costly showdown. Last fall, Hong Kong’s economy slid into recession. Bankruptcies are proliferating. Hong Kong’s flagship airline, Cathay Pacific, is struggling, and under pressure from China, like a number of other enterprises in Hong Kong, has fired personnel who showed support for the protesters. More than 7,000 people have been arrested in connection with the protests, and close to 1,000 have been charged so far. Some are accused of rioting, which can carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Even before China’s viral outbreak, tourists were steering clear of Hong Kong, businesses were edging away. Moody’s earlier this month downgraded its credit rating for Hong Kong’s shrinking economy to Aa3 from Aa2, citing the government’s failure to address the evident concerns of Hong Kong’s people, and the signs that Hong Kong enjoys less autonomy from China than was previously perceived. This followed a downgrade by Fitch Ratings last September, on similar grounds that Hong Kong has been losing its credibility as a well-run venue for commerce.

There’s an obvious remedy. China could honor its treaty promises: ease up, back off and allow genuine democracy in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers would clearly prefer to sort out policy issues and political differences peacefully, via democratic process. In late November, the protests briefly ceased, as voters went to the polls in the only genuine elections allowed to them, for relatively powerless seats on district councils. They delivered a landslide for pro-democracy candidates, handing them majority control of 17 of the 18 local councils.

But permitting Hong Kong to enjoy democracy on a scale that lets its residents shape their own laws and choose their own chief executive is a course that China’s President Xi Jinping has been patently unwilling to take. It could pose a threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power in mainland China itself. If there is one thing that Hong Kong’s protests have flushed into view, along with Hong Kong’s yearning for freedom, it is the Chinese Communist Party’s prime imperative of power, no matter the cost.

China’s ruling Communist Party has exploited decades of Western engagement, not to liberalize China’s political system, but to upgrade its reach and methods of control. This has taken an ever more sinister turn since Xi rose to power, becoming president in 2013 and presiding in 2018 over a Party Congress at which more than 99% of the delegates voted in chilling unison to lift the term limits on China’s presidency — effectively installing Xi, now 66 years old, as ruler for life.

Styling himself as a modern Mao, complete with the insertion of “Xi Jinping thought” into China’s constitution, and a massive military modernization and buildup, Xi aspires to turn China into the dominant world power.

In this scheme, Hong Kong and its longtime foothold in the free world plays a useful role for Beijing as a financial center. It is the main interface between China’s legal murk and controlled currency, and the dollar world of global business. So, for propaganda purposes, China continues to tout its “one country, two systems” promise to Hong Kong as alive and well.

In practice, Beijing increasingly treats Hong Kong’s free society — its people and culture — as a threat, to be ground down, brutalized, silenced and ultimately absorbed obediently into a vast regional money-making complex that Xi Jinping has dubbed “the Greater Bay Area.”

During many weeks spent in Hong Kong last year, as the protests rolled on, I watched as this great city became a place of ever more visible Orwellian disconnects. There was the reality of a mass uprising in defiance of despotic rule. And there was the official line, in which China-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam — in whom Xi has repeatedly expressed full confidence — flatly spurned the calls for freedom and democracy, reframing them as some sort of disappointing public failure to appreciate the edicts from on high.

That’s what China now peddles as fulfillment of its promise of “one country, two systems,” a brand of governance that has left a battered Hong Kong on a slide to ruin. Now comes the Wuhan virus, convulsing all of China, under a Beijing regime that values above all its own survival, whatever the cost. One country, sick system.

Claudia Rosett is a Foreign Policy Fellow with the Washington-based Independent Women’s Forum. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.