Beijing was last night braced to receive a blow in Hong Kong's elections as pro-independence candidates were poised to win seats on its ruling council.
Activists who back separation from China were running in the legislative elections for the first time, despite attempts by Beijing to silence what it considers extremist elements. Victory for the small number of radical young campaigners might signal a shifting of the sands in the anti-establishment camp, but could also play into the hands of Beijing by splitting the democratic vote and letting pro-China politicians take more seats.
The "pan-democrats" control 27 of 70 seats, compared with 43 held by politicians friendly to Beijing. If they lost just four seats, they would fall below the one-third threshold needed to veto legislation.
But the rise of the independence movement has rattled China's ruling Communist Party, and the Hong Kong authorities banned several of the more extreme candidates.
Many in Hong Kong believe independence is a remote possibility, but the idea has been gaining support - particularly among the city's alienated young.
A poll carried out by the Chinese University of Hong Kong said 20 per cent of residents and 40 per cent of those under 24 support independence after 2047, the date when the former British colony comes fully under the control of China.
Fears that the freedoms which were agreed when the city was handed over in 1997 have caused widespread alarm.
These boiled over into mass protests in 2014 over Beijing's failure to uphold commitments to hold unfettered elections for Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017.
Concerns intensified after the disappearance last year of five booksellers who since emerged in detention on the mainland, leaving unanswered questions about their apparent abduction by Chinese agents.
Observers on the Chinese mainland are painting a dire picture of what would happen if more anti-establishment candidates were elected to the legislative council.
Tian Feilong, assistant professor at Beijing-based Beihang University, told state-run media that legislation would get "bogged down" because of infighting.
But Hong Kong's political system is heavily weighted towards pro-establishment groups as 30 legislators are selected by small voting blocs from special interest groups. Those seats always go predominantly to pro-Beijing candidates.