HONG KONG – Beijing plans to intervene in a Hong Kong political dispute over two young, newly elected separatist lawmakers in a rare move that is stoking fears the Chinese-ruled city's considerable autonomy and independent judiciary are under threat.
Hong Kong's government said Friday that it was informed by China's central government that members of the country's top legislative panel, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, will discuss interpreting an article in Hong Kong's constitution covering oaths taken by lawmakers.
The move follows a provocative display of anti-China sentiment by the two lawmakers, Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching, at their swearing-in ceremony last month.
Beijing's heavy-handed response could lead to the democratically elected Leung and Yau being disqualified from taking office. Such an outcome would be favorable to China's Communist leaders, who are alarmed by the former British colony's burgeoning independence movement, but is also likely to plunge their troubled relationship into fresh turmoil.
Beijing has stepped in with its interpretation of the Basic Law — the city's constitution — on only four occasions, most recently in 2005. The National People's Congress did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said senior lawmakers Friday heard a report on a draft "explanation" of the article on oath-taking and indicated it would be tabled for review during the current session that ends Monday.
Hong Kong's leader Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told reporters he wouldn't comment until Beijing issued its ruling.
Leung and Yau of the radical Youngspiration party altered their oaths to insert a disparaging Japanese term for China. Displaying a flag reading "Hong Kong is not China," they vowed to defend the "Hong Kong nation." Leung crossed his fingers while Yau used the F-word in her pledge.
Their oaths were ruled invalid but attempts at a do-over have resulted in mayhem in the legislature's weekly sessions, as the duo and fellow pro-democracy lawmakers sparred verbally with pro-Beijing rivals and brawled with security guards trying to keep them out of the chamber.
Hong Kong's Beijing-backed government has gone to the top court this week with an unprecedented legal challenge aimed at blocking the two from taking office. The government's argument is that they have declined to take the oath.
It's unclear when the judge will rule, but the Chinese government's decision to take it one step further by bypassing the courts has fanned residents' fears about Beijing's tightening hold.
"When the situation is not favorable for China's Communists, they use politics to solve a legal problem," Yau, 25, told reporters.
Leung, 30, said a Beijing interpretation "brings a lethal blow to the legal system and the rule of law in Hong Kong."
Worries about the erosion of the "one country, two systems" principle, which guarantees Hong Kong civil liberties such as freedom of speech and a high level of autonomy until 2047, have intensified after recent incidents such as the secret detention of five booksellers.
A Beijing ruling would also undermine Hong Kong's independent courts by pressuring judges on their decisions, experts said.
"The mere threat of interpretation strongly suggests that certain officials in the Hong Kong government and Beijing are prepared to tear down Hong Kong's civic institutions — and 'one country, two systems' — merely to achieve the 'correct' result," said Alvin Cheung, a former Hong Kong lawyer who is now a researcher at New York University's U.S.-Asia Law Institute.
The saga reflects Beijing's fury about the Youngspiration pair's pro-independence stance, "given the fact that there have been rhetorical and legal attacks at all levels against them." It includes well-organized pro-China protests denouncing the two as traitors and a barrage of attacks in Beijing-controlled media, said Samson Yuen, a politics lecturer at the Open University of Hong Kong.
In the latest such salvo, an op-ed Friday by the nationalist state-run Global Times newspaper said: "Disqualifying Leung and Yau will serve as a necessary warning to those pro-independence activists, and show them the disgraceful end they will come to if they stick with their fatuous political cause and keep crossing the line."
Their expulsion "reflects the will of the entire nation. We are sure the country will make it happen," it added.
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This story has been corrected to fix spelling of researcher's name to Cheung instead of Yeung.