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Quartz Weekend Brief—Hong Kong’s future, the evils of sitting, life in the universe, the robot economy

Good morning, Quartz readers!

July 1 marks the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China, and this weekend activists are gearing up for annual anti-China protests of record size. In recent weeks, Beijing has inflamed concerns that the “one country, two systems” model, which guaranteed Hong Kong a high degree of political freedom and allowed it to thrive, could be rolled back.

China’s central government effectively disemboweled the long-held pledge that Hong Kong was “highly autonomous” in a public document earlier this month. Communist Party mouthpiece newspapers have mocked a recent civil referendum on suffrage in Hong Kong. Meanwhile hacking attacks believed to come from China and outright pressure from Beijing threaten free speech in the city.

But this comes as Hong Kong wonders about more than just its political future. Other fast-growing financial hubs are snatching business from the city of 7 million that exists mostly because of finance. New York has become Chinese tech firms’ go-to IPO spot; London has ambitious plans to be the world’s renminbi trading hub; and Singapore is stealing private banking business.

Hong Kongers, who pride themselves on working hard, following the rules and staying out of each others’ business, are trying to find answers to some tough questions: How can the city change to absorb pressure from Beijing, but remain livable? How can its financial markets claw back business? How can it reinvent itself to avoid becoming nothing more than a giant shopping mall?

The concern over Beijing’s influence is already drawing unlikely groups to the streets. On Friday, hundreds of Hong Kong’s lawyers took to the streets, for only the time since the 1997 handover. How many people turn out for the July 1 protests, and how China responds, should be closely-watched by the rest of the world. It will be a test of resolve for both Hong Kongers and for Beijing.—Heather Timmons

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

Silicon Valley’s diversity problem. The tech world claims to be the ultimate meritocracy but its culture is so uniform that it’s more like an elite club, argues Carlos Bueno, a software engineer. Max Nisen breaks out recent data from the Valley’s tech giants confirming that both their leaders and engineers are mainly white and Asian men.

Sitting is bad for you. No, really, really bad. Hannah Newman delves into the science of sitting and explains why it’s so harmful that even exercise doesn’t mitigate the heightened risks of cancer, heart disease and other ills. Luckily, there’s an easy solution: Sit less. (We’re now thinking about putting standing desks in the Quartz office.)

A model and her murderer—both economic migrants. Diana O’Brien, a Canadian model, moved to Shanghai in 2008. Two weeks later Chen Jun, a young Chinese migrant laborer, murdered her. Gwynn Guilford looks into the economic circumstances that made both of them “cheap, exploitable, and ultimately fungible labor” in the city.

The economics of business class. The run from New York’s JFK airport to Los Angeles LAX is one of the most highly-trafficked flights in the US—and also the most lucrative. David Yanofsky analyzes why it’s such a money-spinner and other airlines have bulked up their business-class offerings.

The real problem with student debt. Those Americans who get most deeply in hock as students tend to also go on to good careers and pay it off. And they’re the ones who make a stink about student debt. But, Matt Phillips writes, the real problem is those who rack up a more modest amount but don’t get a degree.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

A history of the barcode. Thisweek saw the 40th anniversary of the first retail product to be scanned—a pack of Wrigley’s gum. A 2009 article by Tony Seideman traces the technological evolution that had to take place before an invention patented in 1949 could become so ubiquitous that the modern world literally wouldn’t run without it.

What if we’re a really big accident? The Fermi Paradox says: If the universe is so vast, why are we apparently alone? The science blog Wait But Why unpacks all the mind-boggling possible implications. One of these is that the evolution of intelligent life is just fantastically improbable; Zach Zorich at Nautilus looks at the latest research on what would happen if you could rewind the tape and let evolution run again.

Should a first lady be sexy? The US’s Michelle Obama appears on magazine covers as wholesome, maternal and business-like. But in a recent cover shoot, Mexico’s Angelica Rivera de Peña was swashbuckling, smouldering, and sexual. Robin Ghivan in the Washington Post picks apart the complex aesthetics of where femininity meets power.

Visions of a robot economy. We’ll confess we haven’t yet read all of this 138-page e-book from British “innovation foundation” Nesta, but it’s by a great set of essays by various economists and technologists on how to think about what the next few decades of automation will do you to your job and your world.

Why Disney’s Frozen has been a worldwide success. What makes this cartoon about a princess so much more popular than any number of other cartoons about princesses? Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker reports on the results of research suggesting that it’s because the main character is flawed and the film subverts the formulae that have always worked in the past.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, first lady cover shoots and vintage barcodes to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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