When we lived in Shenzhen, an industrial megacity in mainland China, my husband and I would occasionally visit Hong Kong on the weekends. Entering the former British colony was always a shock to my system. Unlike Shenzhen, Hong Kong was full of signs in English and people speaking Cantonese, the dialect of my childhood. All around were foreigners, British-style double-decker buses, and plenty of familiar brands and stores.

But what captivated me most about Hong Kong was its people. Physically, they looked similar to the professional classes on Shenzhen—same hair styles, petite frames, wardrobe choices. But their faces were completely different. When Hong Kongers talked, their faces became much more animated. When they smiled, you could see their teeth. Sometimes I would just observe people as I wandered down the crowded, narrow streets. And as I watched, I felt the heaviness of mainland China begin to lift. In Hong Kong, the spirits of the people were alive.

For the past two weeks, those narrow streets of Hong Kong have been teeming with crowds of a different sort: students and professionals, workers and activists, all protesting the recent proclamation that Hong Kong’s next top leader would be elected from a slate of Beijing-approved candidates. The protesters see this as an underhanded strategy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to gain greater control over the Westernized territory.

When the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, the conditions of the handover were clear: Hong Kong would retain its current way of life—including all its freedoms, civil society, economic and political systems—for 50 years.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the CCP has attempted to encroach upon the autonomy they had promised. Since the handover, journalists in Hong Kong have been censored; publishers have been harassed; activists have been closely monitored and intimidated. A couple years ago, Chinese authorities proposed incorporating “patriotic education” into Hong Kong schools, until successful student protests forced them to backtrack.

In recent years, the headlines we’ve seen from mainland China have been primarily about the country’s explosive economic growth, one that has raised an astonishing 600 million people out of poverty since 1981. When I lived in Shenzhen, I experienced a society that had everything—and nothing. The gleaming malls were brimming with the latest fashions; the highways were packed with cars; the city buzzed with karaoke bars, massage parlors, and nightclubs. Rural migrants flowed in from every corner of the country looking for jobs, while educated professionals earned salaries their parents could only dream of. But everywhere I looked, I saw emptiness.

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Since the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, there have been only two state-sanctioned forms of expression allowed in China: hyper-nationalism, to the point of rampant xenophobia, and the headlong pursuit of wealth. The harsh punishments meted out to those who dare oppose or even question the CCP—executions, imprisonment and torture, years-long intimidation campaigns, constant surveillance—have deterred many in China from standing up for themselves. They have, understandably, chosen the safer route, which has cultivated a society obsessed with all things self: self-image, self-sufficiency, self-provision, self-protection, self-preservation. Any experiences of community, empathy, trust, and morality have been driven underground.

As a result, the day-to-day existence of the modern urban Chinese is one of constant battle: fighting for a place in line, jostling to get on the subway, competing for a better job, struggling just to be noticed and valued as an individual in a highly conformist society.

In Shenzhen, many of the Chinese Nationals I met were doing very well economically, but they were dogged by feelings of loneliness, confusion, depression, and the nagging sense that their lives had no meaning. They were among the saddest individuals I have encountered in any part of the world, a people broken, hurting, and insecure. They had no voice, no sense of self-worth, no higher purpose, and no hope. Their lives had become only about survival—economically, politically, and socially—which is really no life at all.

The current debate in Hong Kong over who gets to select the candidates for chief executive may seem like a triviality, but it’s not. The protesters correctly see the slippery slope Beijing wants to nudge them down. It’s not about politics; it’s about the empowerment and dignity of 7.2 million people. It’s about the right to think for oneself and laugh freely; to speak truth and pursue treasures worth far more than the riches of this world; to believe in God and the goodness of others.

After less than two years, I left Shenzhen because living in such a miserable place had broken me too. Even with my own firm conviction that Jesus was with me in every daily battle, I did not have enough resilience to stand in a society that is all about keeping people down. It was only after we moved to Hong Kong that I learned how to laugh and trust others again. Only there, in a city where debate is welcome, where kindnesses are regularly extended to strangers, where the power of choice exists, could I remember that life is about so much more than survival.

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Nobody knows what will happen in 2047, when the 50-year agreement to preserve Hong Kong’s civil liberties ends. But for now, we have the Hong Kong of today. So each day during these protests I pray earnestly for the people of Hong Kong, for courage and perseverance. I pray that God will change the hearts of the Communist leaders. I pray that, together, they will find a peaceful way forward to preserve the freedom and dignity that defines Hong Kong, and I pray that our brothers and sisters in mainland China may one day be able to experience that too.

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer, blogger, and editor who has found healing and hope through words. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the U.S. and Asia, living in mainland China and Hong Kong from 2008 to 2011. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and adorable hapa son. You can find her online at www.chengtozun.com or on Twitter @dorcas_ct.