The ostensibly pro-democracy protests are really about "the long term question of uncertainty" over where Hong Kong's economic future, said Jamian Ronca Spadavecchia, the founder of Oxbow Advisory.
"The same fundamentals that make Hong Kong attractive to invest in, are currently being challenged," Spadavecchia said. "And the more that these characteristics are marginalized, the less important Hong Kong plays within the greater Asia-Pacific—and within China itself."
There's no clear evidence that any major faction among the protesters—whether students or generally older moderates—are rallying around financial freedom slogans, but there are several distinct narratives underscoring just how important economics may be to this movement.
Read MoreHong Kong protests explained
"There is an elite sense that the more interference there is from China, the more dangerous it is for Hong Kong's long term [economic] role," said Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, adding that the economic concerns of students are even more at play in the recent protests.
Many of these students, he explained, see a Beijing presence in Hong Kong as damaging to their own economic future: They are seeing higher housing costs as mainlanders move into the densely populated region, and they are seeing job creation slow despite China's rise.
And while some could argue that a free market has led to the economic inequality hurting these students, autonomy from the mainland may be the eventual cure. Schuman writes that "Hong Kong requires a popular administration that commands the support of the people in order to implement the reforms necessary to tackle these critical problems."