Anson Chan, the final Chief Secretary of Hong Kong under British rule and the first after the turnover to the Chinese, is a model of practicality and moderation. Martin Lee, founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, is the city’s revered, chief democratic activist. They came to Washington together last week to express a common concern about the future of self-rule in Hong Kong.

In so doing, they highlight risks at the heart of Hong Kong’s economic success.

On the face of it, these champions of liberty are concerned with the nuts and bolts of elections. Chinese “Paramount Leader” Deng Xiaoping promised the people of Hong Kong the right to elect its own leaders under a formula known as “one country, two systems.” The debate in Hong Kong today is over exactly how to implement that promise. If Beijing is allowed to control the nominating process, as Lee told The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt, the election for chief executive in 2017 will boil down to a simple choice between “Puppet A or Puppet B.”

However, the debate is something more fundamental than whether the Chinese Communist Party keeps its word. It’s about whether Hong Kong preserves what Chan calls its core values: integrity in government, commitment to transparency, and, above all, Hong Kong’s greatest asset—the rule of law.

These are the things that have kept Hong Kong at the top of the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom for 20 years. It stands to reason that if Hong Kong becomes just another Chinese city—with leaders accountable only to Beijing—its performance in these areas will follow suit. (China rates 137th in the Index.)

Chan and Lee also came to Washington concerned about Washington’s commitment to liberty in Asia.

To its great credit, the Obama Administration gave them some hope. Vice President Joe Biden met them Friday at the White House and released a statement expressing “long-standing support for democracy in Hong Kong and for the city’s high degree of autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework.” The symbolic power of the Vice President’s time with the Hong Kong activists was not lost on Beijing. It is not happy.

And therein shines another ray of hope. The Obama Administration has appeared hamstrung at times over concern of irritating authorities in Beijing. There’s no reason to provoke Beijing for provocation’s sake, but freedom in Hong Kong and the shining economic example it has set for the world is well worth some discomfort in U.S.–China relations.