Thousands of police have been deployed to the streets of Hong Kong and swathes of the city are shut down as authorities brace for protests during a rare visit by one of China's top-ranking officials.
Zhang Dejiang, Beijing's No. 3 and the first senior Chinese official to visit the country since the 2014 Occupy Democracy protests, began his visit by promising to listen to all sectors of society's views on how Hong Kong should develop — even though the official reason for his trip is an economic summit.
Members of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement will meet Zhang briefly during his visit and will outline their demands to remove the island's current chief executive — Leung Chun-ying, who was chosen by a 1,200-strong election committee approved by the Chinese government — and have the country hold its own elections.
Tensions are high, with more than 6,000 police mobilized to secure the city. Local media reported pavement bricks were being glued down to quell the prospect of violent protests while police are camping atop a mountain where a pro-democracy banner was hung two years ago.
A banner demanding "true universal suffrage" was hung on a different mountaintop on Tuesday morning, before being swiftly removed.
Security guards at the airport took away reporters' umbrellas, reported the South China Morning Post, and also confiscated a small yellow towel meant to cover a camera lens. Yellow umbrellas became the symbol of the pro-democracy movement which swelled in 2014.
In a brief speech upon arrival, Zhang said he would "listen to the chief executive and the [Special Administrative Region] government regarding their work, and to all sectors of society about what recommendations and requirements they have about implementing the principles of "one country, two systems." He is due to give a speech at a conference on Wednesday morning, before meeting with lawmakers and having dinner with Leung.
The leader of the Democratic Party, Emily Lau, told the BBC she was happy to see Zhang in the country. "We intend to tell him what we think of what is happening here," she said. "Hong Kong is really facing the darkest moments since the handover in 1997 and mainly because of poor governance of the chief executive and also because of Beijing's very hardline policy."
Independence, a taboo topic under both British and Chinese rule, has become an increasingly mainstream subject in Hong Kong, with some activists calling for an outright breakaway from China, a move some politicians say would imperil the city's economic and political future.
"These young people have no idea that they could be putting Hong Kong on a potentially dangerous collision course with the motherland and bringing an unmitigated disaster," wrote former top Hong Kong security official Regina Ip in an editorial in the state-run China Daily.
"Separatism, or rather the anti-mainland doctrine in disguise, will… doom Hong Kong," she continued.
The young activists see it differently.
"[We] are facing a very great threat from China: Our culture, our language, our people… we are dying!" said Chan Ho-tin, the head of the newly formed National Party, expected to contest legislative elections in September.
"Do [Hong Kong people] want to be a Chinese city or do they want to be an independent country? There are only two choices."
Joshua Wong, another prominent young activist who launched a new political party called Demosisto this year, has left open the option of taking an independence line in upcoming campaigns.
Hong Kong guarantees freedom of expression under the agreement that saw Britain return its former colony to Beijing in 1997, but authorities haven't ruled out taking action against pro-independence activists.
"Any suggestion that [Hong Kong] should be independent or any movement to advocate such independence… would be inconsistent with the legal status of Hong Kong," the Department of Justice (DOJ) told Reuters.
The DOJ said it was watching for "possible criminal activities" and would "closely monitor the situation, maintain close liaison with the relevant law enforcement agencies, and take such action as may be necessary."
Hong Kong authorities said the "counter-terrorism security measures" were needed to ensure the safety of dignitaries during the visit.
Pro-democracy protests have been generally peaceful with some exceptions, and Lau told the BBC she did not believe in violence.
"It is really pathetic to see government officials going there putting glue on the pavements. I mean if that's the way they think they are going to solve HK's problems then they are turning themselves into an international laughing stock," she said.
"The real way to solve the problem, the sharp contradictions, is to improve governance, give us a democratic system, and get rid of the unpopular chief executive."
The pro-democracy student-led protest movement began in September 2014 after China reneged on a promise to hold free and open elections in Hong Kong in 2017. Hong Kong has been under Chinese control since 1997, when it was handed over from Britain after 150 years of colonial rule.
Watch the VICE News documentary: The End of the Umbrella Revolution: Hong Kong Silenced:
While Hong Kong's growing independence movement is perhaps more a reflection of worsening political divisions than a realizable goal, the challenge to Beijing's authority is unnerving some.
Observers with close ties to Chinese officials say one of Zhang's priorities will be establishing relations with more moderate democrats to lower the heat.
"He will send a positive signal to any pan-democrat who is willing to have a dialogue with China," Tien said. "This must be one of his key missions: To make sure the signal is strong enough that the electorate won't lambast the moderate pan-democrats and give all their votes to the extremists."
China is an umbilical cord for Hong Kong's economy, with Chinese capital succoring financial markets and millions of Chinese visitors powering its tourism and retail sectors.
"Acts in favor of Hong Kong independence harm the sovereignty and security of the country, harm the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, and harm the fundamental interests of Hong Kong," Chinese Foreign Minister spokesman Hong Lei told reporters on Monday.
Hong Kong also relies on China for food, water, and electricity, making independence almost impossible in practice.
"A lot of people in Hong Kong have jobs associated with the mainland," said Holden Chow, vice-chairman of the DAB party, Hong Kong's largest pro-Beijing political party.
"If there are no more economic ties… then where are the jobs? There would be a rise in unemployment."
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