By Clare Baldwin and Lizzie Ko
HONG KONG (Reuters) - A campus election at a top Hong Kong university degenerated into an acrimonious campaign against mainland Chinese candidates, highlighting simmering tensions two months after pro-democracy protests led by local students paralysed parts of the city.
Mainland students say they have always felt a distance from their local peers, but recent events in the Chinese-controlled city have fueled a burgeoning Hong Kong identity among many younger residents, alongside frustration and anger at Beijing.
"To brainwashed Commie-loving Mainlanders, we despise you!", read a flyer posted on the University of Hong Kong's (HKU) "Democracy Wall", underscoring the sharpening divide. The flyer has since been removed.
The so-called "Umbrella Movement" protests late last year, calling for full democracy in Hong Kong, posed the greatest challenge to China's authority since the crushing of a pro-democracy movement in Beijing in 1989.
The Communist Party's People's Daily said this week that life for mainland students in Hong Kong was "getting tougher", and the roughly 150,000 young people it estimates live in the territory were "being treated unfairly as collateral targets".
Divisions at HKU bubbled to the surface when a young woman running for the student union was accused of being a Beijing spy and subjected to online abuse after a campus television report highlighted her Communist Party Youth League membership.
A pro-Beijing newspaper leapt to her defense, warning against what it described as a dangerous "McCarthyite trend" in the former British colony.
Millions of Chinese schoolchildren are members of the Party's Youth League and Young Pioneers.
When another student in the same election confirmed that his grandfather had been a Communist Party member, bright red fliers merging an image of his face with that of Mao Zedong were plastered across his campaign posters.
Despite the accompanying warning to students to "Beware of the Communists, be careful when you vote!" his cabinet, as groups of students running on the same ticket are called, ultimately won.
"At the time of an election, sometimes things get a little bit polarized," said HKU Dean of Student Affairs Albert Chau. "In the past even in campaigns between two local cabinets there were remarks made about political affiliation, political association which I don't think were very healthy."
Chau said isolated incidents should not seen as a sign of growing tension between mainland Chinese and locals.
Some students are not so sure.
"Hong Kong people are trying to control their hatred towards mainland China or people from mainland China, but you can still feel it," said Norah Zheng, a second-year HKU sociology student from Shandong province. "Mainland students somewhat hate local students as well because we feel this hatred from them."
The divide seems sharpest at HKU - students and professors at other Hong Kong universities said relations between local and mainland students had not worsened since the protests.
HKU had the most mainland students of the city's eight publicly-funded universities last year at nearly 3,000, or 16 percent of the student body, according to government data.
"The situation in Hong Kong has definitely become more political," said Nora Lam, the HKU CampusTV reporter whose story about student candidate Eugenia Yip sparked the spy controversy.
"Many student leaders of the Umbrella Movement were Student Union members, so I think it's justifiable that people are so concerned with the candidates' political views or influence."
In January, Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying expressed concern that universities could be incubating a separatist movement that would threaten Beijing's sovereignty.
"We must stay alert," he said, singling out HKU's student union magazine Undergrad for advocating self-determination.
"We also ask political figures with close ties to the leaders of the student movement to advise them against putting forward such fallacies."
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret, Nikita Mathur and Clare Jim; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Alex Richardson)