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In Chinese shadow, Hong Kong fights for its future

HONG KONG -- As skyscrapers around Hong Kong harbor erupted into a reverie of laser beams and giant digital displays during their synchronized nightly light show, one innocuous 28-story building near the water's edge had stayed dark for months, clad in bamboo scaffolding for a face-lift.

Then, in June, the renovated tower came to life, flashing giant Chinese characters that some in Hong Kong saw as a warning.

“People's Liberation Army,” it said.

Many in this prosperous city had already feared that Hong Kong's future as an open society as well as a semiautonomous part of China was in jeopardy in the face of perceived growing intervention from Beijing. Tens of thousands of people had turned out days earlier for an annual vigil to commemorate victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, while an unprecedented policy “white paper” declaring Beijing's irrevocable control over the territory had generated furious debate about Hong Kong's future.

Now, after the Chinese military building had kept a low profile for years, its brief debut in the city's beloved “Symphony of Lights” felt like nothing less than a show of force 17 years after the British handed the territory back to Chinese control.

“It's a logo of red Chinese colonization,” said Billy Chiu Hin-chung, one of four people arrested last year after storming the army building while waving Hong Kong's colonial British-era flag.

“If Hong Kong people don't obey the Communist Party,” Chiu predicted, “the army will come and fight us.”

From the sweltering streets of this legendary port city of 7.2 million people to its air-conditioned office towers, Hong Kongers are indeed picking sides in a looming battle over their city.

People here have long prided themselves as providing a stable, sophisticated alternative to Communist China that despite its small population enjoys the world's 36th-biggest economy and runs the globe's sixth-richest stock exchange.

Chinese 'Locusts'

But now, Hong Kongers say the soul of their society is coming under attack as they see the flood of cross-border Chinese shoppers (dubbed “locusts” for their voracious buying habits and supposed bad manners) and grow wary of the Communist Party's rising sway with top officials.

One significant fear is that Beijing is breaking promises to let voters elect their leaders for the first time starting in 2017. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who was hand-picked by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing elites, recently asked China's legislature for constitutional changes to allow the territory to pick its own leader. However, his report said “mainstream opinion” wanted the committee to again pick candidates, setting the stage for a confrontation with democracy groups.

Already, the pro-Beijing influence is threatening a disciplined civil service corps traditionally untainted by political corruption, says Anson Chan, a democracy activist who was Hong Kong's chief secretary and No. 2 official from 1993 to 2001.

“If the government gives the community the impression that it doesn't listen,” she says, “then the community feels that the only way of making this government listen is to take to the streets.”

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APIn this Oct. 2, 2013 photo, a Chinese tourist carries bags after shopping near a money change shop in Hong Kong. (AP)

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