Wang Zhonghua was almost giddy with excitement. As head of a private think tank in China that studies efforts at grass-roots democracy, he has traveled across the mainland monitoring local political movements. But now he was in Hong Kong to meet real-life democrats--and watch first-hand a mass protest on the seventh anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty. His purpose: to learn "lessons" for the development of democracy on the mainland--and "to watch the action." "You can't have such a big political rally on the mainland, of course," says Wang, who asked that his real name not be used. Still, it's a heady experience for the Beijing researcher, who last witnessed a massive political demonstration at the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, adding that last year "a lot of mainlanders came to watch the action in Hong Kong on July 1."

Beijing now encourages mainlanders to travel to Hong Kong to shop and dine. Indeed, 12 million of them are expected to make the trip this year--a 42 percent increase over 2003--and they will spend $7.4 billion on retail goods alone. But political tourism is another matter. Last week, on the eve of the July 1 protest, mainland tour groups entering Hong Kong were cut to about 50 a day--down from an average of about 500. Still, this year's march drew a crowd that surpassed expectations: organizers say more than 500,000 people took part, topping last year's historic turnout, while city officials estimate the number was closer to 200,000. (The latter figure is widely deemed to be too low.) And Beijing can no longer take measures to block coverage of such a massive event from spreading. News about Hong Kong circulates on the mainland by e-mail, text-messaging and word of mouth, not to mention Hong Kong television and radio broadcasts that reach a significant portion of southern China directly. And Hong Kong's political feistiness is hardly a taboo subject among Chinese anymore. "I was touched by the scene," says Peter Zhang, who was on holiday from Shanghai. "Why don't mainlanders do something like this? Our rights have been suppressed so long."

For decades Hong Kong residents regarded the Communist giant next door with fear and fascination, worried that political turmoil there might spill over the border. Now the tables are turned. One of Beijing's biggest concerns about Hong Kong's political awakening is the fear that civil unrest in the former colonial outpost might inspire protest in mainland cities. In the past year the opposite has seemingly been the case; residents complained that the "mainlandization" of Hong Kong had led to media self-censorship and intimidation of pro-democracy politicians. But recently, as Hong Kongers have grown into a greater political assertiveness, they've also begun talking of a growing civic consciousness--even expressions of support--among mainlanders visiting or residing in Hong Kong.

The trend has been building for some time. Last year Hong Kong resident Shen Ting--an emigre from Shanghai--became politically active on the mainland when her elderly parents were forcibly evicted from their Shanghai home. Shen shuttled between Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, liaising with other protestors and lending her mobile phone and foreign-media contacts to angry mainland residents displaced by urban redevelopment. "In Hong Kong I know homeowners have rights," said Shen. "On the mainland they should be protected, too."

This year--for the first time--mainland visitors were among the more than 80,000 people who participated in the June 4 candlelight vigil commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. "They must have found it refreshing," says pro-democracy Hong Kong legislator Emily Lau. "They no doubt were thinking, 'If we can do it in Hong Kong, maybe someday we can do it on the mainland.' "

That's a ways off yet, but Lau says the seeds are being sown. Recently she was fund-raising to prepare for Hong Kong's Legislative Council elections in September when a fortysomething Chinese man came up and dropped some renminbi, or Chinese currency, in her donation box. "He told me, 'I'm from Shanghai and I support everything you say,' " says Lau. "So I answered, 'Good, now go and tell [Chinese president] Hu Jintao.' "

Chances are Hu is already watching events closely. Beijing's initial attitude after the 1997 handover was one of benign neglect. But after six years of recession and a panic over the deadly SARS crisis, the city's residents lost faith in Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, a former shipping tycoon who was handpicked by Beijing to serve as its first postcolonial administrator. It was Tung's bungled attempt to pass an extremely unpopular anti-sedition law that unleashed last July's protest, which stunned authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing alike.

Chinese authorities have taken a more hands-on approach to Hong Kong ever since. When Tung met Hu in Beijing last December, China's president revealed that he was "gravely concerned" about developments in the former colony. Around the same time, Vice President Zeng Qinghong--a more conservative protege of former president Jiang Zemin--took over the Hong Kong portfolio. Then in April, Beijing's National People's Congress unexpectedly reinterpreted the Basic Law--Hong Kong's mini-constitution--to rule out the possibility of direct elections for the chief executive and legislature in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Last week's bigger-than-expected turnout surely reminded Beijing that such heavy-handed rulings may only reinvigorate the territory's demands for greater democracy. "In 1997 I said I'd rather be attacked by a tiger than eaten by worms. Now, years later, here comes the tiger," says Oscar Ho, a Hong Kong art critic. "I'm really mad to be told, 'No, you can't have direct elections.' "

Some are even traveling to the mainland to voice their concerns directly. In June, a handful of Hong Kong student leaders made an official visit to Beijing for the first time since 1989, stressing to students and officials alike that direct elections are the only solution to Hong Kong's problems. "[Current] policies benefit the tycoons and special-interest groups," says Allen Fung, 20, vice president of the Hong Kong University student union, who met with a dozen members of the All-China Students' Federation in Beijing. Another traveling delegate, Ronald Tse, says the Hong Kong students suggested "that a good political system is [one where power] doesn't always belong to just one party." For their part, Beijing students "wondered why Hong Kong people always seem to be against the central government," says Tse, who responded that Hong Kong people "love China but just don't like the [Hong Kong] government. We agreed that we had a difference of opinion."

More frank exchanges may narrow those differences. A block away from last week's march, Jacky Shu, a middle-aged teacher visiting Hong Kong from Hangzhou, nodded approvingly at what he saw. "Maybe people in China can learn from people in Hong Kong," says Shu. "We can come here and show our discontent with the government." Many mainlanders are clearly returning home with more than souvenirs.