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.