Since Britain handed back colonial Hong Kong in 1997, retired primary school teacher and Falun Gong devotee Lau Wai-hing has fully exercised the freedoms China promised this city of 7.2 million.

Lau and fellow believers regularly staged protests to explain the teachings of their spiritual movement and draw attention to the persecution of followers on the mainland, where the sect is banned. Until about a year ago, their protests were uneventful. That changed when a noisy rival group set up their placards and banners on the same pavement in the busy shopping area of Causeway Bay.

Lau, 63, and her fellow protesters said they've been punched, shoved and sworn at since the newcomers from the Care for the Youth Group Association Hong Kong arrived with their blaring loudspeakers. Each protest is now a battle to be heard.