HONG KONG (AP) -- 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. Chiu's group was angry that, near the military building, in the heart of the harbor, a prime slice of waterfront had been fenced off for exclusive use as a dock by the Chinese navy's visiting warships.
"If Hong Kong people don't obey the Communist Party," Chiu predicted, "the army will come and fight us."
From the bustling streets of this legendary port city of 7.2 million people to its air-conditioned offices in sleek towers high above the harbor, Hong Kongers are indeed picking sides in a looming battle over what's to come.
People here have long prided themselves on providing what they consider 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 coming under attack as they grow wary of the Communist Party's rising sway with top officials and see the flood of cross-border Chinese shoppers (dubbed "locusts" for their voracious buying habits and supposed bad manners). Hundreds of thousands of residents have been fighting back in street protests, while others are already mobilizing to move rather than live under Beijing's influence.
All over the territory, which covers an area slightly smaller than Los Angeles, Hong Kongers see evidence pointing to historic changes to their liberal-minded way of life.
Much of the battle centers on democratic reform, with Beijing having promised to allow voters to elect their leader for the first time starting in 2017. But the lack of details about that plan has fed demands for genuine democracy rather than what many say will be a Beijing-manipulated government more worried about mainland approval than the well-being of Hong Kongers.
Last week, the city's leader, Leung Chun-ying, who was hand-picked by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing elites, kicked off the electoral overhaul by formally asking China's legislature for constitutional changes to allow residents to elect the next chief executive. However, his report said "mainstream opinion" wanted the elite committee to again pick candidates, setting the stage for a confrontation with democracy groups, who vow to freeze the financial district with protests if the public isn't allowed to choose candidates free of China's vetting.
Already, the pro-Beijing influence is threatening a disciplined civil service corps that had long upheld transparency and the rule of law, rather than political-minded favoritism, 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 also hit the city's thriving private media. Most newspapers no longer run stories critical of the Chinese government, and even multinational banks HSBC and Standard Chartered recently raised suspicions by pulling advertising from the city's sole pro-democracy newspaper, the Apple Daily. HSBC said in a statement that the advertising decision was purely commercial, and Standard Chartered said it came after a review of their advertising strategy.
In a report released this month, Hong Kong's journalists' association called the past 12 months "the darkest for press freedom for several decades," citing among other events a cleaver attack in February that left an outspoken former editor at the Ming Pao newspaper in critical condition. Last year, the French press watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong 61st in press freedom, a steep fall from No. 18 in 2002.
"For someone who is used to an open society, that is something really alarming and concerning," says Shirley Yam, the journalists' association's vice chairwoman. "Hong Kong is a major financial center, and the reason that Hong Kong has been able to become a major financial center is freedom of information and press freedom."
For many, the most troubling blow came last month with the white paper.
It argued that Hong Kong's autonomy was entirely at Beijing's discretion and that "loving the country is the basic political requirement for Hong Kong's administrators," including its judges. In the view of Chan and other critics of Beijing, that policy violated Chinese promises to respect Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy, which mainland leaders famously dubbed "one country, two systems."
The expressions of outrage were immediate. Even Hong Kong's lawyers, a typically reserved group who dress for court in wigs and black robes in a system based on English common law, hit the streets by the hundreds to protest the white paper.
"We are definitely at a crossroads," Chan says. "Hong Kong people are growing increasingly angry and frustrated, and I think something has to give."
Trying to calm the lawyers' concerns, Hong Kong Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said the white paper wouldn't require judges to make any "political or other inappropriate" considerations while deciding cases.
Pro-government Hong Kong legislators also say critics are overdramatizing the Chinese threat to the city's way of life. Instead, they warn that protesters who plan to shut down the city center are the real danger.
"Democrats should not use fighting means to achieve their own purposes," says Christopher Cheung Wah-fung, a legislator and businessman who runs a stock brokerage firm.
"Keeping the dialogue," he says, "is better than confrontation."
In the face of growing turmoil, some in the city say they're looking to use British, Canadian or American passports and move away. That evokes the chaotic scene before the 1997 handover when hundreds of thousands left in fear of the Chinese government after its troops killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
With Chinese President Xi Jinping's hard-line approach in China and the region, those fears have returned. Domestic opponents have been arrested and silenced, and neighboring Asian countries are on the defensive over Chinese territorial claims.
"One country, two systems is collapsing," says Ray Kwan, a 23-year old engineering graduate from Hong Kong University who wants to emigrate -- to the United States, he hopes.
Property prices in Hong Kong have doubled since 2009 amid an influx of wealthy mainland Chinese, raising Kwan's doubts that he can ever afford to raise a family in his native city.
"You have to compete with 1.3 billion people, with all of China," Kwan says. "So my way of helping myself is just to leave."
That pessimism is spreading even among those who barely remember the days of British rule, according to a Hong Kong University survey conducted last month.
The poll found that the share of adults who said they felt proud to be a Chinese citizen sank to only a third, while the proportion who had a negative view of the central government's policies on Hong Kong rose to its highest level since the survey started in 1999.
"The younger the respondent, the less proud one feels of becoming a Chinese national citizen, and also more negative about the central government's policies on Hong Kong," says pollster Robert Chung.
Yet amid the despair, thousands of young people as well as veterans like Chan are taking action to demand more democracy. As many as 800,000 Hong Kongers voted in an activist-sponsored online referendum last month about the future of the city's government, despite vocal displeasure from Beijing, which called the vote illegal. Massive protests filled the city days later in the biggest march in years marking the city's July 1, 1997, return to Chinese rule.
"I think I will stay in Hong Kong until the last minute," said Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old who helps lead the group Scholarism, which formed in 2011 to denounce plans to introduce pro-Beijing "moral and national" education in Hong Kong's schools. "This is the place I was born, and I love it. But if we stay silent, the situation will only get worse."
The most visible pro-democracy group -- a loose coalition that calls itself Occupy Central with Love and Peace -- plans to rally at least 10,000 people to blockade the Central business district in its push for democratic reforms that meet international standards. The plan has alarmed some in Hong Kong's business community, normally a bystander when it comes to politics. Some foreign business chambers and the Big Four accounting firms have voiced their opposition with newspaper ads, but a small group of finance workers support the movement, saying that Beijing's influence is undermining the economy of this Asian financial hub.
Benny Tai, a Hong Kong University law professor and one of the architects of Occupy Central, said the protest plan is a last-ditch resort to pressure the government in case all other tactics fail.
"It's just playing a game of chicken," said Tai. "They will not send the soldiers because it's too big a statement for Beijing."
Pro-Beijing lawmakers, who dominate the legislature, say stability is more important than democracy at all costs and warn of the damage they say such protests can exact on Hong Kong. In one sign of Beijing's sensitivities to Hong Kong public opinion, the People's Liberation Army stopped flashing its name across its building after the test run in June prompted worried headlines and online outcry.
If the city doesn't get democracy, it would be a disappointment, "but life is full of disappointment," says Robert Chow, spokesman for the group Silent Majority, which produced a video in June warning that paralyzing the downtown would be like "a knife in the heart" of Hong Kong. His group has started its own petition opposing the Occupy Central rallies. "It is not the best situation, but it is an acceptable situation for Hong Kong."
"I think Beijing is doing a good job in China. And the Communist government in Beijing is doing all the right things about Hong Kong that it's supposed to be doing," Chow said. "Hong Kong is the proverbial rabbit who thinks he's going to beat the tortoise forever, but they forget that's not the tortoise. It's a super tortoise that runs fast or faster."
On the street, Hong Kongers notice the everyday signs of China's expanding influence. They talk of the growing competition for jobs from mainlanders and how Chinese tourists -- an astonishing 40.1 million last year -- cut in line to board buses and trains and eat on the subway, an affront to Hong Kongers used to order.
Housewife Chan Man-yin, who lives in the city's northern suburbs near the border with the mainland, said she sometimes can't find basic necessities for her 2-year-old daughter because of mainland Chinese flooding across to shop.
In particular, she's seen parents and store owners from nearby Shenzhen travel to Hong Kong several times a week to stock up on milk powder, fearful of tainted formula in China that sickened thousands of children in 2008. Much of the milk powder in Hong Kong is imported from Europe and is believed to be safer.
"I've walked to 20 stores in a day sometimes to look for milk powder," Chan said outside a shop, with her daughter watching from her stroller. "I'm just asking that they don't buy so much. Just give other people a chance."
Chan admitted that like many of her neighbors, she's watched Hong Kong change in ways she fears are irreversible.
"We're all scared," she said. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. I'm afraid for my free speech rights. My personal rights are very important to me."
For Roger Chen, who moved from the mainland to Hong Kong a year ago for a job at a hedge fund, Hong Kongers are only feeling insecure in the face of China's booming economy, which has eclipsed the territory's importance as a commercial gateway to the mainland.
Not much has changed in the territory as far as he can see, he said, and the protesters seem only to be looking for a convenient target for their frustration. In the end, Chen said, he was confident China would become more like Hong Kong and adopt more of its liberal policies, rather than the other way around.
"Beijing has no intention to break their deal," Chen said at a Starbucks cafe as his pregnant wife nodded. "Hong Kong is more like a child of Beijing. It's a very cherished child of China."