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"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," he said.
Hong Kong Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said that Beijing 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. Instead, they warn that protesters who plan to shut down the city center are the real danger.
In one sign of Beijing’s sensitivities, the People’s Liberation Army stopped flashing its name across its building after the test run in June unleashed online outcry.
"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."
Some, however, are already looking to use foreign passports and move away, evoking the scene before the 1997 handover when hundreds of thousands left in fear of Chinese rule.
"’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. "You have to compete with 1.3 billion people, with all of China. So my way of helping myself is just to leave."
Yet amid the despair, thousands of people are taking action. As many as 800,000 Hong Kongers voted in an activist-sponsored online referendum last month on electoral reform, which Beijing called illegal. Massive protests filled the city days later in the biggest march in years held on the anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule.
"I think I will stay in Hong Kong until the last minute," said Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old who has opposed attempts to introduce pro-Beijing education in schools. "But if we stay silent, the situation will only get worse."
On the street, Hong Kongers notice the everyday signs of China’s expanding influence.
Housewife Chan Man-yin, who lives in the city’s northern suburbs, said she’s had a hard time finding milk power because mainlanders from across the border buy up all the stock, fearful of tainted formula in China.
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 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.
"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."
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