With military precision, Beijing ordered Hong Kong's elected democrats to leave the enclave's legislative building by midnight of June 30, just hours before Chinese tanks and troops poured across the border to assert Beijing's rule.
Now, many of those politicians, elected in 1995 under British rule, are reemerging as a moral shadow government, challenging the pro-China "provisional legislature."
"We are still the democratically elected representatives of the people," says Emily Lau, a pro-democracy activist.
These democrats, who still carry widespread legitimacy, are fighting unpopular labor, immigration, and police-power measures drafted by the new, unelected lawmakers. And as its laws spark protests on the streets of Hong Kong, the legitimacy of the new legislature itself is being challenged in a series of court cases.
Martin Lee, founder of the Democratic Party, says China violated Hong Kong's Basic Law, or constitution, by ignoring a rule that one-third of the members of the post-British legislature be directly elected.
The democrats' criticisms of China have put many of them on Beijing's blacklist. But in a typical view here, an office worker surnamed Pun says, "Even without any official titles, Martin Lee represents the voice of Hong Kong, and he has more support than any government leader."
Chief Secretary Anson Chan, the independent-minded head of the civil service who holds the No. 2 spot in the government, still meets with many democrats despite Beijing's silent disapproval, say a number of analysts here. And Ms. Lau says, "My constituents still come to me for help, and the government still replies to all of my queries."
"In some ways it seems the only difference since the handover is that I am no longer paid as a legislator," she says.
Meanwhile, members of the Democratic Party, which dominated Hong Kong's last freely elected congress, have begun monitoring the work of their replacements. And Lau says she intends to keep using what remains of a free press to help elect democrats in an election due next year.
The provisional congress is set to review proposed rules this week that will sharply cut the voting franchise and redraw polling districts in it favor in the election. Representative Tsang Yoksing, a pro-China leftist, says, "of course there will be fewer voters than in the last election," but adds that "democracy can only be introduced gradually in Hong Kong."
"The [Chinese] Communist Party wants to change the election rules to limit the gains made by the democrats in the 1998 vote," says a Chinese scholar with high-level government contacts.
"During the 1995 election, pro-China candidates got only half-a-dozen seats - a fraction of the wins by the democrats," he adds. "The Communist Party doesn't want to see its proxies lose again next year, and the new rules should make the democrats a small minority. By changing the voting laws, Beijing wants to gradually wipe out the democrats while retaining the appearance of democracy in Hong Kong."
Despite the voting changes, Lau and other pro-democracy figures still hope to make a comeback.
"Unless the election is rigged," she says, "I expect to be reenter the legislative building as a member in 1998."