The protests that have consumed Hong Kong for more than three months started because of a proposed bill that would've made it easier for mainland China to extradite citizens from the semi-autonomous city, raising fears that Beijing's central government would target political dissidents.
Violent clashes between protesters and police culminated in a confrontation at a subway station on August 31, when police appeared to beat demonstrators with batons—possibly resulting in a fatality, though the authorities dispute that.
The activists, politicians, and academics we spoke with said that the protest movement has become about much more than the extradition bill—which the government has since withdrawn—or police brutality. It's a fight for the survival of an island of liberalism in the shadow of an increasingly authoritarian superstate with ambitions of global dominance.
"We are at the front lines between the great to dictatorship among human history, which is [the Chinese Communist Party], and the free world," says "Sixtus" Baggio Leung, a controversial activist who emerged from the 2014 Umbrella Movement and made it into office before being disqualified for promoting Hong Kong independence during his swearing-in ceremony.
Hong Kong's peculiar "one country, two systems" governance model began when Britain handed over its former colony to China in 1997 on the condition that it be allowed to maintain its existing governance structure for another half-century.
This city of more than 7 million prospered economically, with China mostly holding up its end of the bargain.
Hong Kong's constitution, called the Basic Law, protects freedom of speech and assembly, but the city enjoys what's been described by a former British governor of the city as "liberty without democracy." The government—including the city's chief executive—isn't entirely elected by the people.
"If you did this interview with me in 1997 and asked me, 'When do you expect that people in Hong Kong would get this universal suffrage?' I think most people at the time would say, well, maybe 10 years. That was almost like part of the promise in the Basic Law. But as time goes by, promises were broken," says Charles Mok, a Hong Kong legislator who supports universal suffrage. Mok wasn't elected by popular vote to his position; he was selected by a small pool of stakeholders as an official representative of the city's tech sector.
Like Mok, the majority of representatives didn't get to the legislative council via the ballot box. Not suprisingly, most members of the legislature who were not voted in by the citizens side with mainland China and not the protestors.
As one journalist put it, Hong Kong's ruling class is "the result of collusion between Hong Kong's tycoons and Beijing's Communists."
So the citizenry has turned to the streets.
"Largely because we are not a democracy, because the government is not elected, I think street-level protests—actually largely peaceful—are an important means for the Hong Kong people to protest government actions," says Ma Ngok, a political scientist at China University of Hong Kong.
Protest has proved effective in the past. The 2014 Umbrella Movement led the government to withdraw a proposal to pre-select a limited slate of presidential candidates. It also spawned a mostly youth-led movement to increase democracy as a way of preserving the city's autonomy.
Joshua Wong was just 15 years old when he led a successful movement overturning a plan to impose a pro–Communist Party history curriculum in Hong Kong's schools. Wong started the political organization Demosisto, which has played a central role in the protest movement and even elected candidates to office who were later disqualified.
Activists see the fight for more democracy as a path to securing more liberty. They're demanding the citizens be allowed fully elect the city's legislative body and chief executive, but winning that right requires approval from Beijing.
Despite their doubts about the likelihood of the government granting them the what they seek, the movement's leaders say they have no choice but to keep fighting for liberty and democracy, or else Hong Kong will be subsumed into an authoritarian state.
"If we lose, oh, we will suffer," says Leung. "We will lose a generation. This generation, they will be put into jail. They will be harassed. So [it's] all or nothing. Now or never."
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Edwin Lee. Additional graphics by Ian Keyser.
Photo credits: Todd Darling/Polaris/Newscom, Liau Chung Ren/ZUMA/Newscom, Chine Nouvelle/SIPA/Newscom, Rao Aimin Xinhua News Agency/Newscom, Steven Shaver/UPI/Newscom, EPN/Newscom, face to face/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Constance Zavarzhin/ZUMA/Newscom, Geovien SO/ZUMA/Newscom, Guillame Payen/ZUMA/Newscom, Imagine China/Newscom, Walt Disney Pictures/Album/Newscom, Tang Ke/Zuma/Newscom.