By Greg Torode and James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) - From China warning Western nations to stop meddling in Hong Kong to Communist Party-backed newspapers describing "plots" by foreign spies to seize the city, a growing row over electoral reform has exposed the fragility of hopes for full democracy.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with wide-ranging autonomy, an independent judiciary and relatively free press under the formula of "one country, two systems" - along with an undated promise of full democracy, a subject never raised by the British during 150 years of colonial rule.
The implications stretch beyond the shores of Hong Kong, a glamorous, free-wheeling global financial hub. The Hong Kong model has been held up by Beijing as a possible solution for self-ruled Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province which must return to the fold, by force if necessary.
Hong Kong elects its next leader in 2017 in what will be the most far-reaching version of democracy on Chinese soil. But Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong has ruled out open nominations for candidates, meaning he or she will be chosen by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
British Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire this week called for universal suffrage in the 2017 polls, saying Hong Kong people should get a genuine choice. China said it would not tolerate outside interference.
Michael Davis, a constitutional law specialist at the University of Hong Kong, said foreign states had a legitimate interest in Hong Kong, noting how China had once courted international support for "one country, two systems".
But Beijing, he said, was now suspicious of their motives.
"At its heart it is a kind of insecurity," Davis said. "China is at that stage of development where it constantly attempts to edit inbound criticism, and that is what we are seeing here."
The United States and its large Hong Kong consulate are also being targeted by Beijing and its allies - something Washington's new top envoy, Clifford Hart, is expected to address when he delivers his first Hong Kong speech next week.
Diplomats from both Western and Asian nations fear their routine work to reach out to political and business contacts in the city is growing difficult as Beijing rails at "foreign interference".
Party-backed newspapers in the city have long questioned the activities of foreign diplomats, this week upping the ante with claims that British spies are highly active, subverting politics with leaks from colonial-era files.
"The diplomatic community is a core part of Hong Kong's international edge," one Asian diplomat said. "But we feel a bit squeezed and unwelcome ... we are entering a very sensitive time."
Hong Kong remains by far the freest city in greater China but tensions are rising. Every year, on the anniversary of the 1997 handover, thousands take to the streets demanding fully democratic elections, some openly declaring their support for the British.
Pro-democracy groups have threatened to seal off the central business district next year as part of a campaign of civil disobedience. The most prominent Catholic in greater China, Cardinal Joseph Zen, warned last month that the government and pro-Beijing supporters might try to incite violence.
"We're at a point where the significance of the issues on the table are such that the (leaders) responsible for Hong Kong are paying very close attention," said a Western diplomat.
The diplomat added the hardening of China's stance towards Hong Kong was a decision made by senior Beijing leaders.
"It's being directed at the (Politburo) Standing Committee level," a Western diplomat said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party's highest decision-making body. "We have solid indications of this."
U.S., British and other multinationals maintain a strong presence in the city while foreign warships stop frequently in its dynamic and strategic port.
British officials have yet to respond to the Chinese criticism of Swire's comments. China's Hong Kong-based Foreign Ministry representative, Song Zhe, also issued an explicit warning to U.S. Consul-General Hart against interfering in local affairs.
Consulate spokesman Scott Robinson defended Hart's work, saying the envoy had met with a range of leaders across government, business, politics and academia.
"Such meetings are the standard practice of diplomatic representatives of nations around the world at the outset of their tenures, and they are important for building relationships, exchanging views and opening lines of communications," he said.
Long-standing U.S. policy towards Hong Kong was unchanged, he said - including support for progress towards "genuine universal suffrage".
(Additional reporting by Grace Li; Editing by Nick Macfie)