Exasperated with the government’s unflinching attitude to escalating civil unrest, Jason Tse quit his job in Australia and jumped on a plane to join what he believes is a do-or-die fight for Hong Kong’s future.

The Chinese territory is grappling with its biggest crisis since its handover to Beijing 22 years ago as many residents fret over what they see as China’s tightening grip over the city and a relentless march toward mainland control.

The battle for Hong Kong’s soul has pitted protesters against the former British colony’s political masters in Beijing, with broad swathes of the Asian financial center determined to defend the territory’s freedoms at any cost.

Faced with a stick and no carrot – chief executive Carrie Lam reiterated on Tuesday protesters’ demands were unacceptable – the pro-democracy movement has intensified despite Beijing deploying paramilitary troops near the border in recent weeks.

“This is a now or never moment and it is the reason why I came back,” Tse, 32, said, adding that since joining the protests last month he had been a peaceful participant in rallies and an activist on the Telegram social media app. “If we don’t succeed now, our freedom of speech, our human rights, all will be gone. We need to persist.”

Since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, critics say Beijing has reneged on a commitment to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms under a “one country, two systems” formula.

Opposition to Beijing that had dwindled after 2014, when authorities faced down a pro-democracy movement that occupied streets for 79 days, has come back to haunt authorities who are now grappling with an escalating cycle of violence.

“We have to keep fighting. Our worst fear is the Chinese government,” said a 40-year-old teacher who declined to be identified for fear of repercussions. “For us, it’s a life or death situation.”

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