Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching, two young pro-independence legislators who were recently elected to Hong Kong's legislative council, have been disqualified from serving in the government, a Hong Kong judge ruled on Tuesday, the latest step in a case that many observers say demonstrates unusually direct intervention from Beijing into the city's judicial system.
The ruling by a Hong Kong court comes a week after Beijing issued a reinterpretation of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which critics say aims to prevent the pro-independence legislators from getting a foothold in the local government.
Judge Thomas Au, who handed down the ruling against Mr. Leung and Ms. Yau, says that he would have reached the same ruling even without Beijing's influence, according to the BBC. But many critics are already protesting what they see as a fundamental breach of the "one country, two systems" doctrine, established when Hong Kong was returned to China from Britain in 1997, which gives the city relative autonomy on domestic issues until at least 2047.
"The system we believed in – that we see as protection for Hong Kong people – is very fragile," Leung said at a press conference. The two lawmakers plan to contest the decision and apply for an injunction to stop a by-election for their replacements.
Many in Hong Kong feel that the relative freedoms and independence of Hong Kong compared with mainland China have increasingly come under threat in recent years. During elections earlier this year, a number of young, more vocally pro-democracy or even pro-independence representatives were elected, including Leung and Yau, who promised to make it a priority to counter China's growing influence over Hong Kong.
In a swearing-in ceremony in October, all Hong Kong legislators were required to take the usual oath of office, which includes a clause to bear "allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China." Leung and Yau, however, inserted an insulting term for "China" into the words of the oath while brandishing a banner emblazoned with the words "Hong Kong is not China." Members of the Legislative Council, or LegCo, have previously used the oath as a platform to make symbolic political gestures. But this time, in Beijing's eyes, they had crossed a line.
"This has never happened before," Victoria Hui, an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame and a fellow at its Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies in Indiana, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "Wong Yuk-Man and others used to do other tricks during their oath taking. The previous Legco chair Tsang Yuk-sing would simply let them retake the oath properly again. Never any issues."
Tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China came to a head during the pro-democracy "Umbrella Movement" in 2014, fueled in large part by young students. During this September's elections, voters turned out in near-record numbers, voting in some lawmakers more vocal about a new solution for Hong Kong: independence.
"No one ever uttered the 'I' word before the end of last year," says Dr. Hui. "No one did so during the umbrella movement. These young people feel that there is nothing left, that the one country two systems model is dying. So you may as well go for independence."
According to Hui, mainland China has been looking for excuses to shut down the budding independence movement, leading to the Nov. 7 ruling by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing to reinterpret the Basic Law. The Beijing ruling requires legislators taking the oath of office in Hong Kong to "take the oath sincerely and solemnly." Anyone who injects sarcasm or implies insincerity for this oath is barred from office, and cannot retake the oath.
Leung and Yau are not the only lawmakers potentially affected by the new rules from Beijing. Eight more pro-democracy lawmakers came into the line of fire last week, as well, when a lawsuit was brought against them for refusal to take the oath properly. According to The New York Times, one legislator delivered the oath in an exaggeratedly slow fashion, while another delivered a preamble that said he could not be loyal to a country that "murders its own people." Another simply opened a yellow umbrella in solidarity with the protestors.
While these lawmakers may not be able to serve on the council as a result, Leung and Yau say they are willing to continue fighting, in or out of office.
"Our one role is to represent the Hong Kong people," said Leung.