Mass demonstrations have pushed the Chinese-ruled territory of Hong Kong into its most serious crisis in decades. The international airport has been at a standstill since Monday, while an increasing number of shops have been shuttered and thoroughfares blockaded.

In 1997, Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule under a “one country, two systems” mode of governance, guaranteeing the city a high degree of autonomy, an independent judiciary and freedoms not allowed in mainland China. The fifty-year agreement is due to expire in 2047.

Nearly two million people have taken to the Hong Kong streets since June to protest a proposed extradition bill, which would have allowed suspected criminals to be sent to mainland China for trial. Critics have said it would threaten Hong Kong’s legal freedoms, and could be used to silence political dissidents.

Hong Kong’s last British governor says protestors are up standing up for their freedoms, which have been “whittled” away under the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chris Patten, a former Conservative Party minister who governed Hong Kong from 1992 to 1997, helped push through constitutional reforms in the final years of U.K. rule that were later dismantled by the Chinese government. Now retired from politics, he is Chancellor of Oxford University.

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Patten spoke with TIME by phone on Aug. 7 about what’s at stake for Hong Kong and China as the unrest continues. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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