HONG KONG - Hong Kong's democracy demonstrators are winning unexpected support from pockets of the city's much-vilified mainland Chinese community, who are defying Beijing's hard line on the protests and a social media backlash from their peers.
Hong Kongers have long had a testy relationship with mainlanders, who are often derided for swamping the already densely crowded financial hub and usurping resources, from hospital beds to baby formula.
The city's protests over Beijing's refusal to grant fully free elections have drawn insouciant shrugs and nationalistic rants across much of the mainland, with small knots of sympathisers swiftly detained by authorities.
But some mainlanders in Hong Kong are bravely showing up at the rallies that erupted two weeks ago, lending logistical and ideological support and revelling in what is strictly forbidden on the Communist mainland - rooting for democracy.
"On the mainland, you can be thrown in jail for your beliefs," said Li, a 21-year-old sociology student from southern Guangdong province.
"Coming out at protests in Hong Kong, shouting slogans for democracy, standing up for what you truly believe in is a liberating experience." Li, who requested that her real name be withheld, never converses in Mandarin at protests - only Cantonese with a "Taiwan accent" - and sticks with Western peers from her university in Hong Kong, masking her face to "prevent any trouble" for her parents back in Guangdong.
The number of such supporters is hard to ascertain but the trend reinforces the nightmare scenario for Beijing of a possible domino effect that would see the mass revolt in Hong Kong spread to the mainland.
Beijing has said that candidates for Hong Kong's leadership election in 2017 will be vetted - infuriating protesters who call it "fake democracy".
Tensions flared at the city's main rally site Monday as masked men descended on barricades, triggering clashes with protesters, hours after police had removed some barriers in a dawn operation.
But the odds of the protest movement extending to the mainland are slim, says Hong Kong University student Xin, judging by the reactions from her fellow mainlanders on Facebook - some openly supported the use of tear gas on umbrella-wielding Hong Kong protesters on September 28 in a police move that grabbed the world's attention.
Facebook is officially banned in mainland China but it is possible to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass the country's vast censorship apparatus.
Xin, 24, says her Facebook timeline turned into a battlefield when she began posting pictures of the protests from the roof of her 22-storey building in Causeway Bay district, where she set up a free WiFi hotspot to enable demonstrators to post live updates on social media.
"Hong Kongers are spoilt and ungrateful." "The city won't survive a day without China." "What democracy? We've already given you too much freedom." Infuriated by Xin's support for Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution, some of her "nationalist minded" mainland friends abandoned her Facebook page.
The protests are reported to have triggered a "collective war of unfriending" on social media between mainlanders on the two ends of the political divide, the Hong Kong-based newspaper Ming Pao Daily said in a recent article.
Many of those trading barbs from the mainland have limited access to the realities in Hong Kong because of the "sanitised" coverage in the heavily censored national media, Xin said.
"I call up my mother and she curiously asks me, 'Oh but why are Hong Kong people behaving so badly?' She doesn't have the slightest clue." One Chinese television report said that Hong Kongers were enjoying "fresh air" at the city's protest-hit Tamar Park, at the peak of the demonstrations, Xin added.