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said that the protest movement  has become about much more than the extradition bill—which the government has since withdrawn—or police brutality.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.

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.”