Hong Kong on high alert for Chinese visit as independence calls grow

By Clare Baldwin

HONG KONG, May 17 (Reuters) - Authorities worried about

increasingly strident calls for Hong Kong independence are

taking no chances ahead of a rare visit from one of China's top

ranking officials, shutting down swathes of the city and

reportedly gluing down pavers to quell the prospect of violent

protests.

Mainland Chinese media have cited the visit by Zhang

Dejiang, China's No. 3 and the first senior official to come

since the 2014 Occupy democracy protests, as an example of

Beijing's concern and support for the Asian financial hub.

Yet tensions are so palpable that thousands police have been

mobilised to secure the city during Zhang's visit, which begins

on Tuesday. Local media reported pavement bricks were being

cemented to prevent them being used as missiles while police

were camping atop a mountain where a pro-democracy banner was

hung two years ago.

Independence, a taboo topic under both British and Chinese

rule, has become increasingly mainstream subject in Hong Kong,

with some activists calling for an outright breakaway from

China, a move some politicians say would imperil Hong Kong'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."

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, wouldn't rule

out taking an independence line in upcoming campaigns.

"The problem with young people is that they are not 100

percent pre-occupied with economic considerations," said Michael

Tien, a Hong Kong delegate to China's parliament, the National

People's Congress, which Zhang heads.

"A lot of young people saying they don't want development,

they want a better environment, they want better work-life

balance, they want better quality of life."

"CLOSELY MONITORED"

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.

China is an umbilical cord for Hong Kong's economy, with

Chinese capital succouring financial markets and millions of

Chinese visitors powering its tourism and retail sectors.

"Acts in favour 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."

DON'T VOTE FOR 'THE EXTREMISTS'

While Hong Kong's 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."

(Additional reporting by Stefanie McIntyre, Pak Yiu, Stella

Tsang and Teenie Ho; Editing by James Pomfret and Lincoln Feast)