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HONG KONG (Reuters) - A planned museum dedicated to the brutal crackdown on China's Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests has run into a legal challenge in Hong Kong that some say is motivated by pro-China interests ahead of the 25th anniversary of the bloodshed.
The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 but remains a free-wheeling, capitalist hub whose annual candlelight vigils on June 4 set it apart from mainland China where all public commemorations are banned.
Discussion of the Tiananmen Square crackdown is still taboo in China, where on June 3 and June 4, 1989, its leaders ordered troops to open fire on demonstrators and sent in tanks to crush a student-led campaign movement, killing hundreds.
But 17 years since Hong Kong was handed back to China, a bid to establish the world's first permanent museum dedicated to the crackdown in an 800-sq-ft, fifth-floor unit in a commercial tower has been opposed by the owners' committee.
The row could escalate into a broader headache for Beijing amid rising resentment over China's tightening control over the city's affairs and calls for universal suffrage.
The ability of Hong Kong residents to debate the June 4 crackdown remains a potent symbol of the city's freedoms and civil liberties relative to Communist Party-ruled China.
The museum, now being renovated by construction workers and due to open in late April, will feature photographs, a goddess of democracy and other documentary materials chronicling the crackdown.
The Chinese demonstrators built the goddess statue as a symbol of their struggle and it has been replicated at June 4 anniversaries in Hong Kong.
An owner's committee of the Foo Hoo Centre where the museum is located, voted last Wednesday to bar it from opening, claiming in a legal document seen by Reuters that units should only be used for offices.
"We anticipate and have a real concern that your proposed use of the 5th floor will operate as a lightning rod and attract to the building and its vicinity an inordinate number of visitors, both supporters and detractors," the letter, issued from the solicitors' office of Tung, Ng, Tse & Heung, stated.
One tenant, the Chiu Chau Plastic Manufacturers Association, voiced explicit opposition to the plan. Its secretary general, Yeung Cho-ming, told the South China Morning Post that the museum was "definitely a political problem."
"The (June 4 incident) is sensitive and contentious. We are afraid the museum will bring us trouble. Someone might protest here and affect our daily operations," he was quoted as saying.
The group behind the museum said the legal threat was being orchestrated by those with loyalties to China.
"This is obviously a politically motivated lawsuit," said Lee Cheuk-yan, a local lawmaker and head of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China that each year organizes the June 4 candlelight vigil.
The alliance bought the fifth floor of the office tower for $1.25 million last December, with a mission to preserve the memory of June 4 and to seek redress and accountability from Beijing's Communist Party leaders for those killed.
Beijing maintains the democracy movement was a "counter-revolutionary event", a denunciation protesters want overturned.
Lee said the owners of two businesses in the building, Man Lee Electrical Co. and Reer Garment Manufactory Ltd, had told the owners' committee they would pay the legal fees for the lawsuit out of their own pocket. Neither company was willing to comment when Reuters visited their offices in the building.
"I don't think any sensible person would use his own money to start a lawsuit, so there must be someone behind. Of course they would not divulge who is behind them," Lee added.
Mak Hoi Wah, a vice-chairman of the alliance, said 54 of 60 votes cast during last week's owners' committee meeting backed the legal challenge against the museum.
The current president of the Chiu Chau Plastic Manufacturers Association, Lam Chun-hong, is a member of China's top political consultative body, the CPPCC, in southwestern Yunnan province, according to a membership list published by the Xinhua state news agency.
Its honorary life president is Hong Kong billionaire and Asia's richest man, Li Ka-shing, according to its website
There was no immediate comment from Li on whether he backed the legal challenge when contacted through his firm, Hutchison Whampoa.
Earlier this year, Li warned that a planned "Occupy Central" protest to shut down the central business district to press for full democracy would damage the financial hub.
Despite fears the narrow building might be overrun with visitors, some tenants didn't see a problem.
"I don't mind," said Tong Chun-sing, who works for a design firm. "It won't affect our business."
Additional reporting and writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie