A visit by a senior Chinese leader meant to spread goodwill has instead left Hong Kong fuming over the smothering security that locals fear was aimed at muffling the media and protesters.
In the two weeks since the visit, journalists have taken to the street in protest. Professors have taken out newspaper ads and students demanded the police chief resign. Police and local leaders have been raked over in the legislature.
The uproar is the latest clash of cultures between the controlling, authoritarian government in Beijing and Hong Kong, the financial centre and former British colony returned to China's control but allowed to keep its capitalism, civil liberties and Western-style legal system.
“People are very concerned that their freedoms are being undermined. The whole city is angry,” pro-democracy legislator Emily Lau said at a heated special meeting of the Legislative Council's security panel this week.
Sparking the outrage were the security arrangements put on for Vice Premier Li Keqiang, a rising star in the Chinese leadership. Hong Kong's vigorous press complained they were kept far away from Li during the few events they were allowed to cover and had to compile their reports from government handouts. A few protesters who dared to get close say they were treated roughly by police officers.
While such tactics are standard procedure in mainland China, Chinese leaders are usually more careful not to alienate freewheeling Hong Kong. Li's visit was intended to bolster his image - he's expected to become premier in 2013 or sooner - and to show the government's concern for Hong Kong. He announced measures to give Hong Kong companies better access to the mainland market and promote the territory as a trading centre for Chinese yuan.
But the heavy-handed security has served to heighten concern in Hong Kong that its autonomy is being eroded by a mainland government that does not value the territory's more freewheeling ways.
“I can understand why people feel unhappy or even angry with the way some of the situations were handled,” Jasper Tsang, a pro-Beijing legislator and president of the Legislative Council, said on a television talk show Sunday. “I would say this storm you refer to once again tells us that there's still a difference between the values held by Hong Kong people and the conceptions, the beliefs of our central government.”
The stark differences have been on view in recent months before the security fracas. Proposals unveiled by education officials in May to introduce patriotic education to “build national identity and develop the pride of being Chinese” have triggered criticisms about brainwashing. When China's top official for Hong Kong affairs publicly criticized local civil servants for failing to think long term, many people saw it as meddling.
Hong Kongers have seen freedoms of speech and the press as particularly vulnerable indicators in the 14 years since Beijing resumed control and pledged to use a hands-off approach in governing Hong Kong under the principle of “One Country, Two Systems.”
“In the mainland many people cannot enjoy these freedoms. Many people say we are getting more and more like the mainland,” Lau, the pro-democratic legislator, said in Monday's special panel - an at times heated confrontation.
Serenade Woo, a local representative for the International Federation of Journalists, told the panel that reporters are worried that Hong Kong police were becoming more like those on the mainland, where journalists are routinely hassled.
The police chief and security officials sat stone-faced throughout. The police chief did not react when one lawmaker threw a pro-democracy T-shirt at him.
Neither the government, the police chief nor the senior civil servant in charge of security has apologized to the public - a sign of the priority Hong Kong's leaders place on loyalty to Beijing.
“The general public's impression is that the order for this extra caution must have come from Beijing,” said Willy Lam, a veteran China watcher and adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
People in the pro-democracy camp are especially incensed over two incidents during Li's visit. At a stop-off at a block of apartments, plainclothes officers responsible for VIP protection hauled away a local resident who got too close to a security zone. The man was wearing a T-shirt with a slogan calling for Beijing to overturn its condemnation of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square that the military went on to crush. A local cable news channel also complained that a security officer prevented its cameraman from filming the activity.
At Hong Kong University - which is admired as a liberal bastion of free inquiry - police allegedly dragged three student protesters to the ground and detained one for an hour in a stairwell while Li was attending an anniversary ceremony. Other students and alumni were hemmed in by security and kept away from the event.
Video footage of the encounters have been played repeatedly on local news channels.
A group of academics took out ads in several newspapers demanding the government apologize, while the university's student union said the visit “marked one of the darkest days for the breach of our highly regarded freedom of speech, liberty and human rights.”
The university's president later apologized, saying school officials were “taken aback by the scale of police mobilized on the date of the event.”
The tight security is being seen as a sign of things to come as the Chinese leadership prepares for a transition to a new generation of leaders next year amid fears of unrest similar to the popular revolts that have swept the Middle East and North Africa.
“People are afraid things might turn even worse later on, that the balance between one country and two systems has been upset to the favour of one country and that means the priority of Beijing is now overriding Hong Kong's traditional core values of freedom of expression and so forth,” said Lam, the commentator.