BEIJING (AP) — China's top legislature took the rare step Monday of intervening directly in a local Hong Kong political dispute by effectively barring two legally elected separatist lawmakers from taking office, setting the stage for further turmoil in the semiautonomous city.
Beijing moved to deny the two a second chance to take their oaths after being disqualified on their initial attempt last month for using anti-China insults and foul language. But the maneuver circumvented Hong Kong's courts, where the case is currently being heard, raising fears that the city's independent judiciary is being undermined.
The decision, while intended to nip the rise of budding separatism sentiment, has instead raised the specter of enduring political unrest in Hong Kong, two years after huge crowds of mostly young people occupied major streets for 11 weeks. Those demonstrations failed to win greater democracy but spawned an independence movement.
On Sunday, thousands took to the streets to rally against the anticipated announcement by the Chinese government. Police used pepper spray and batons against some umbrella-wielding demonstrators trying to reach Beijing's liaison office after the march ended. Four people were arrested and two officers were injured, police said.
The dispute centers on two newly elected pro-independence lawmakers, Sixtus Leung, 30, and Yau Wai-ching, 25, who altered their oaths to insert a disparaging Japanese expression for China. Displaying a flag reading "Hong Kong is not China," they vowed to defend the "Hong Kong nation." Their oaths were ruled invalid and subsequent attempts have resulted in mayhem in the Legislative Council's weekly sessions as the council's president refused to let them try again until the government's legal challenge is settled.
But Beijing decided to act more quickly. The National People's Congress Standing Committee, the country's top legislative panel, issued a ruling on a section of Hong Kong's Basic Law, or mini-constitution, covering oaths taken by officials.
It said talk of independence for Hong Kong is intended to "divide the country" and severely harms the country's unity, territorial sovereignty and national security. It also said those who advocate independence for Hong Kong are not only disqualified from election and from assuming posts as lawmakers but should also be investigated for their legal obligations.
It's the first time Beijing has stepped in to block elected Hong Kong lawmakers from taking office. It's also the first time that Beijing has interpreted the Basic Law before a Hong Kong court has delivered a ruling on a case. In three of four previous interpretations, the NPC Standing Committee has delivered an opinion only after the Hong Kong government or the top court requested it.
"For the young people this is going to definitely create a backlash. This is going to further fuel the independence movement," said Samson Yuen, a politics lecturer at the Open University of Hong Kong. He added that Hong Kong's young people must be feeling helpless because every protest or collective action they've taken "has run into a dead end."
"Rationally for young people the only way out is to fight more radically," he said.
At a briefing for reporters in Beijing, Li Fei, a deputy secretary general of the NPC Standing Committee, denied that the central government was escalating its interference in Hong Kong's affairs.
He said the Basic Law stipulates that Beijing holds the legal power to make interpretations, and it is the central government's duty to step in when there is a difference of legal opinion. He also warned that promoting independence was not a matter of freedom of speech.
"Breaking 'one-country two-systems' is violating the law, not voicing a political view," said Li, referring to a principle under which Beijing is supposed to let Hong Kong keep its capitalist economic and political system separate from mainland China's until 2047.
The central government's stance is absolute, he said, adding, "There will be no leniency."
Li also directed his comments to the independence movement's core supporters. "The young people, I believe after some time will recognize the true face of those stirring up trouble behind the scenes and learn their lesson," he said.
Ming Sing, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said Beijing was making a "disproportionate" response to the threat of a separatist movement, given that polls show an overwhelming majority of Hong Kong citizens do not support breaking away from China or believe it to be realistic.
The central government's response has alarmed many in Hong Kong liberal-leaning circles who believe the Youngspiration lawmakers recklessly invited a crackdown, Sing said. "At best, they were childish and committed a big error by opening the door for abuse by Beijing," he said.
At the same time, he said, the heavy-handed response could draw sympathy for a sustained pro-democratic movement. "After today, people feel one step closer toward an authoritarian society, they feel a greater degree of deprivation of a fundamental right to elect their own legislator," he said.
Eddie Chu, an independent pro-democracy lawmaker, said Beijing was making a "needless intervention" with its interpretation because Hong Kong's courts could have handled the dispute.
"They are trying to create a rhetoric about the independence movement" to deter those who seek greater self-determination for the city, Chu said. "And Sixtus and Yau Wai-ching are the first victims in this new legal net."
Chu, Leung and Yau were among a group of pro-democracy candidates elected for the first time in September who advocate greater autonomy for Hong Kong. Leung and Yau are members of the radical Youngspiration party. They did not respond to media requests for comment Monday.
Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, said the government will fully implement the standing committee's interpretation.
He told a packed news briefing that the Youngspiration duo had not only advocated independence for Hong Kong, but "even insulted the country and the Chinese people in their words and deeds."
"Their conduct has caused widespread indignation in Hong Kong and across the country," Leung said.
Beijing officials struck a similar note in the closing moments of their briefing, which took an unexpected turn as Li, the standing committee official, denounced the oath-takers for using an archaic Japanese term to smear the Chinese people.
Li decried the two as "traitors" and recounted Japanese World War II atrocities in Hong Kong in graphic detail, telling of nurses raped and bodies bayoneted and tossed into the Hong Kong harbor.
"I hope the people of Hong Kong won't forget the history of Japanese invaders," he said. "All the traitors who sell out the country never have good endings."
Chan reported from Hong Kong. Associated Press journalists Gillian Wong in Beijing and Josie Wong in Hong Kong contributed to this report.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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