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A mock tank, covered with photocopies of a controversial white paper released by Beijing on Hong Kong’s future, is displayed by local artists to symbolize China’s threat to the city’s autonomy.

Bobby Yip/Reuters

On a rain-soaked holiday Tuesday, Hong Kong's fight for democracy has all the subtlety of a street carnival. Demonstrators in matching T-shirts chant in unison over ear-splitting blasts from rival megaphones. Students with a "we are all equal" banner belt out demands for the right to vote while a business group, more interested in stability than a public fight, loudly warns that the push for democracy is illegal and will lead to riots.

Behind them towers the North Point Methodist Church, where for a day a cross-section of Hong Kong has gathered beneath dark skies to debate the growing call to freely elect the chief executive – the most powerful position in the territory of 7.2 million, and one that is rigidly controlled by Beijing.

Seventeen years after it was transferred to China by Britain, Hong Kong – a critical Asian financial hub, not to mention home to 300,000 Canadians – is preparing for a battle that could reach beyond its borders. China has pledged some form of universal suffrage for Hong Kong by 2017. But the shape of that change remains very much in question. Will the Communist Party retain the ability, explicitly or implicitly, to control who can stand for office?

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The democratic hopes of those who want universal suffrage rest in the oddly named "Occupy Central with Love and Peace" – a group that has said that, if Beijing does not relent, at least 10,000 people will take to the streets as soon as July to shut down the heart of Hong Kong.

They have consciously styled themselves as Asia's successors to Martin Luther King. If they are arrested, they say, they won't fight the charges. "We will go directly to jail," says Chan Kin-man, a professor of civil society studies who is one of the three men leading Occupy Central.

"We are not challenging the rule of law. We just see civil disobedience as an advocating process."

Opponents accuse Mr. Chan of masterminding a plan to turn Hong Kong into another turmoil-plagued Bangkok. "It's crazy," says Robert Chow, a suave broadcaster who has led efforts to stop the occupiers. "We don't want an excuse to go into a revolution."

It is a local struggle that is giving wider voice to resentment over the Communist Party's autocratic rule, both on the mainland and in places like Taiwan. And it has echoes of something even larger: the battle to stem China's rising global influence, and the hope that China itself can one day rewrite its political system to give people a greater voice.

Will the Communist Party, in other words, give the citizens of Hong Kong more say? Or will it crush their hopes of change in the name of leaving its supremacy untouched? It's a question that stands to define the contours of China's future.

"If you look at what [former Chinese president] Hu Jintao said when he stepped down, he said very clearly China is not going to adopt a western style of democracy," says Mr. Chow. "But China is going to go with its own democratic system. Now, what is that? Nobody knows.

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"So the question then is, how can you test the waters?"

Love your country, or else

Beijing has sought to strike first. In a white paper released this month, China described Hong Kong as plagued by "many wrong views" and tightly circumscribes the city's ability to act independently. Hong Kong has "the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership," the paper says. But, it adds, "Loving the country is the basic political requirement for all of Hong Kong's administrators."

The baldly worded paper only served to raise tensions in a dispute that was already ugly. This week, Occupy Central claimed a website it created to collect votes in an informal referendum on its demands, with voting set for this weekend, was the victim of a concerted and massive cyber-attack.

In April, when Edward Chin, a former hedge-fund manager and Canadian citizen, made public his support for the Occupy movement in an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping, he was excoriated by the Chinese press. After allowing Occupy to use his office to film a documentary, he found the door to the building smashed. He took it as a warning.

Protest leaders, meanwhile, report strange behaviour on their phones. Mr. Chan has received repeated death threats.

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More worrisome to him, though, is the language Beijing has used, accusing him of stirring up turmoil and leading a radical political force. These are the terms for "people fighting for Tibetan independence," he says – a reflection of the significance of the movement he is helping to lead.

The Occupy Central ranks are not dominated by students with a surfeit of passion and a deficit of assets. They are, instead, suit-wearing professionals, businessmen and professors, many of them wealthy people willing to risk arrest.

"This is a moment of truth for Hong Kong's future," says Lawrence Wong, a manager in the construction industry. He wants Beijing to know he is fed up. Hong Kong seems to be "going down instead of up," he says. "I want to have the central government know exactly what Hong Kong people want."

If Beijing doesn't listen to middle-aged men like Mr. Wong and himself, Mr. Chan says, it may risk an outbreak of something more parlous. Because the students are unhappy, too.

"Young people will be more radical than us," he says, referring to surveys that show much stronger support for radical action among local 20-somethings. "The younger generation are very impatient. And if this reform fails, I believe we will have to step aside, and young people will use their own way to fight for democracy."

An opaque system

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Hong Kong does have democracy, of a sort. Its legislators are voted in by universal suffrage, although their powers are limited. But the chief executive is chosen every five years by ballots cast by 1,200 private citizens and representatives of industry and special-interest groups. How the 1,200 are selected is often opaque to the point of impenetrable, even for scholars of local governance.

That opacity stands in contrast to the power they wield. Not only do the 1,200 select the region's most powerful figure, 150 of them must sign their names for an individual to stand for election.

What the Occupy crowd wants is something very different: not only universal suffrage, but also the right to vote for candidates who haven't been screened by Beijing.

That's directly counter to the mandate in the recent Chinese white paper, but it hasn't cowed the protesters. Hong Kong has, after all, successfully pushed back at Chinese influence in the past. In 2012, some 120,000 people gathered in the streets to protest against the introduction of a "moral and national education" curriculum they saw as an incursion of mainland propaganda into local schools. The curriculum was dropped.

Two years later, says one of the lead voices behind the curriculum protests, sentiment in support of more open democracy is even greater. "I hope more than 120,000" will take to the streets, says Joshua Wong, the skinny teen who leads a student movement aligned with Occupy Central.

Mr. Wong doesn't much care that China thinks what he wants is illegal.

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"The most important factor is not whether it's legal," he says. "Because it's a political problem. The most important thing is, what is the general public opinion."

Just their wounded pride?

Robert Chow smiles as he takes a verbal machete to his opponents. He is a long-time Hong Kong media figure who has been a reporter, government spokesman, executive at a Chinese-run press agency and broadcast host. He is, he says with relish, Hong Kong's highest-paid public speaker, and he likes nothing more than a good fight – which, right now, is against the Occupy crowd.

Mr. Chow is particular to one argument: In 155 years of British rule, London never gave Hong Kong the right to choose its own leadership. But Beijing has promised some form of universal suffrage. Can you imagine the triumph in Mr. Xi's voice when he sits down with Barack Obama and says Hong Kong "can vote, and choose their own chief executive, as we promised?" Mr. Chow asks. "You think China doesn't want that?"

For Mr. Chow, the possibility that Beijing wants to use democracy as more window-dressing than avenue for political expression is less of a concern than what Occupy proposes to do to his city.

He worries about what will happen to the two-million people living in the downtown Central region if Occupy shuts it down. If access roads are closed, he says, Central will run out of food in about a week.

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That, not an encroaching China, is cause for fear, he says. Besides, he argues, Hong Kong's discomfort with the mainland is rooted in little more than wounded pride. For decades, Hong Kong's wealthy were China's benefactors. "Now suddenly China is booming. China is making all the money," he says. Today, "if you want to be an entrepreneur, I would suggest you go to China. Don't come here."

A Mandarin invasion

In one way, at least, Mr. Chow holds common ground with his opponents: Both sides agree that Hong Kong is changing, its complexion bearing an ever greater resemblance to its new master.

Part of that change has been financial. Last year, 45.6 per cent of Hong Kong exports went to the mainland; the U.S. was second-highest, at 9.9 per cent. Only 10 years ago, the U.S. took top spot, with 32 per cent of exports; mainland China then stood at 30.

Where Mr. Chow and his opponents differ is that the Occupy crowd sees the changes as almost universally bad. Top jobs in the city's financial community are increasingly occupied by people with mainland ties. The People's Liberation Army is pressing forward with plans to build a naval port in the city's harbour, raising the prospect of Chinese warships at anchor in the city's heart.

Even Hong Kong's language is changing.

When former president Hu Jintao swore in current chief executive Leung Chun-ying, Mandarin echoed through the room, elbowing out the city's traditional Cantonese. Companies and embassies post job ads looking for Mandarin-speaking staff, as mainland China occupies an increasing space in Hong Kong's civic and economic affairs.

At the same time, since becoming part of China, the city's chief executives have all suffered problems – either being ejected early by streets protests or leaving office under suspicion of corruption. Mr. Leung, the current chief executive, has seen his tenure plagued by weak public support and suspicions of illegal activity among cabinet members.

It has all led some to an unpleasant conclusion: "When China has too much control over who actually becomes the leader, you get failed leaders," says Simon Young, director of research at the University of Hong Kong department of law. There is broad hope that universal suffrage could bring "someone who is more in touch and is accountable to the public."

Such a system might have advantages for Beijing, such as buying political peace in Hong Kong. But there is, as always, a rub. "They would like to have a democratic system, but also one that could produce someone who can work with them," Mr. Young says.

Still, the alternative might be worse. Deny Hong Kong the vote, Mr. Young warns, and the frustration will come roaring into the open.

"We will see even more protests. And I think people will start thinking about leaving Hong Kong. Already, there's been talk about migration if it looks like China is taking over," he said.

Something more pernicious might arise, too: the kind of cynicism that is already widespread in mainland China.

"It will just be same-old same-old, and there's no reason to trust the government."

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