“Hong Kong needs to win this fight. Or else it will soon be like China.” This was one student’s answer when asked why he participates in pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong even as the risks increase.

Pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong have captured international attention and their movement isn’t fading away, even in the 12th week of protests. Last Sunday, 1.7 million Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest in the rain—for reference, the total population is only 7.3 million. 

The protests were sparked by a proposed extradition bill that would allow people from Hong Kong to be extradited to China. Critics of the bill believe that it would provide a legal excuse for China to pick up anyone from Hong Kong and detain them in mainland China, where the legal system is corrupt and judges follow the orders of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The protests have since evolved to represent a larger pro-democracy movement as the city fears the possibility of mainland China’s encroaching influence in Hong Kong.

Those fears are not unfounded. Hong Kong has thrived with a high degree of autonomy since the city was returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” principle. It currently enjoys an independent judiciary, more protection of basic rights, and fewer restrictions on freedom of expression than mainland China. Churches in Hong Kong experience the same level of religious freedom experienced in the West, and Christian activists have been at the forefront of Hong Kong protests. 

Those in mainland China, meanwhile, are subject to the tight control of the Chinese Communist Party and human rights abuses. Nothing is sacred to the CCP—including religion. The CCP allows legal status for some religious organizations, but these state-sanctioned churches encounter government interference. Minors and college students have been barred from entering all churches. The government has also started to install surveillance cameras in churches.

Last year, the Chinese government started a “thought reform” campaign to promote what they call “Chinese Christianity.” The plan includes retranslating the Bible to find its similarities with socialism. China is fine with allowing Christianity as long as it can be used as a platform to advance the Communist party.

House churches, which lack government approval, are completely shut down by the government.

In 2018 alone, it is estimated that 100,000 or more Christians were arrested for violating China’s strict regulations for religious affairs.

Unlike their neighbors in mainland China, Hong Kongers have free access to information. They know what’s going on in China. And Christians in Hong Kong fear that if the Chinese government exerts more control over Hong Kong, they will begin to face the same religious freedom restrictions Christians face there.

Across the bay from Hong Kong, in China’s Shenzhen province, hundreds of armed Chinese police have been deployed in a show of force. Chinese officials warned that Beijing will forcibly suppress the protests if they become more chaotic. If China’s People’s Armed Police crackdown on Hong Kong protests, it would signal a significant loss of Hong Kong’s autonomy. To silently allow the encroachment of Chinese government control into Hong Kong would be to watch a regime that abuses human rights take over a flourishing city. And that would be a tragedy. As Hong Kongers cry out for democracy, their pleas should not fall on deaf ears.

There is a deep longing within mankind to be free. People throughout the ages have been willing to fight and die for their freedom. Yet, the communist-led Chinese regime believes its residents are fundamentally materialistic and can therefore be easily manipulated and controlled. In defiance of this, Hong Kong is now in its 12th consecutive week of protests.

U.S. leaders shouldn’t ignore this issue. Ultimately, we don’t want to see Hong Kong subject to the same human rights and religious freedom violations seen elsewhere in China. At the very least, that means sending the message to China that the U.S. would not look kindly upon Chinese intervention in Hong Kong. There’s too much at stake if we look the other way.