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Red Army's light show signals fear Hong Kong may lose its open society

| Saturday, July 26, 2014, 5:57 p.m.
A girl carries a Chinese national flag and a Hong Kong flag at a military base during an open day event of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on June 29, 2014, in Hong Kong.

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 feared that Hong Kong's future as an open society as well as a semiautonomous part of China was in jeopardy amid growing intervention from Beijing. Days before, tens of thousands had turned out 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.

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 China.

“It's a logo of red Chinese colonization,” said Billy Chiu Hin-chung, one of four people arrested last year because they stormed the army building while waving the 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 picking sides in the 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.

But now, Hong Kongers say the soul of their society is under attack as they see a 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 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.”

In the eyes of Chan and others, Beijing's influence has hit the city's media. Most newspapers no longer run stories critical of the Chinese government.

Hong Kong's journalists' association called the past 12 months “the darkest for press freedom for several decades,” citing the attack and advertising boycotts. Last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong 61st in press freedom, down from No. 18 in 2002.

The most troubling blow came last month with the white paper, which argued that Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy, famously dubbed “one country, two systems,” was entirely at Beijing's discretion. It added that “loving the country is the basic political requirement for Hong Kong's administrators,” including its judges.

Even Hong Kong's lawyers, a reserved group who dress for court in wigs and black robes, hit the streets by the hundreds to protest the white paper.

“We are definitely at a crossroads,” Chan said. “Hong Kong people are growing increasingly angry and frustrated, and I think something has to give.”

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