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Using Rare Tactic, China Moves to Bar 2 Hong Kong Legislators From Office

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Sixtus Leung, left, and Yau Wai-ching at a protest in Hong Kong on Sunday. The two lawmakers are at the forefront of independence efforts in Hong Kong. Credit Alex Hofford/European Pressphoto Agency

HONG KONG — The Chinese government effectively barred two young, pro-independence politicians in Hong Kong from taking seats in the territory’s legislature on Monday, an extraordinary intervention in the affairs of this semiautonomous former British colony that could prompt a constitutional crisis and fueled street protests that began hours earlier.

The move came in the form of a rare interpretation of the charter that governs Hong Kong, which was negotiated before the territory’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, and raised questions about the independence of the courts in Hong Kong. The charter gives China’s Parliament the right to issue such rulings, but Beijing has never before done so in a pending case without a request by the local government or courts.

The two politicians, who were elected in September, had changed the wording of their oaths of office, inserting what many consider to be a derogatory term for China. Alarm at Beijing’s move sent thousands of demonstrators into the streets on Sunday night. Hundreds clashed with the police in a scene reminiscent of the large pro-democracy demonstrations in the city in 2014.

People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party, had painted the two politicians, Yau Wai-ching, 25, and Sixtus Leung, 30, known as Baggio, as threats to national security for their advocacy of independence and their use of the word “Chee-na” in their oaths, a term that many find offensive and was used by the Japanese during World War II.

That China has taken such a drastic action over what many people see as the childish behavior of two young people has stoked fear that the city’s autonomy will be further compromised. Until two years ago, Ms. Yau was an administrative assistant at a trade group for accountants.

“If we do not suppress and crack down on Hong Kong independence in time, it will seriously undermine national sovereignty, security and development interests,” said Li Fei, the chairman of China’s parliamentary committee on Hong Kong’s charter, the Basic Law. Speaking to reporters in Beijing, he added that the government’s stance “will not be ambiguous or lenient.”

The ruling on Monday by the Communist Party-controlled Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress represents a clash of mainland China’s authoritarian legal system with the rules-based government that Hong Kong inherited from Britain, and it appears to introduce a vague political loyalty test for local officeholders.

The decision requires lawmakers to read their oaths “completely and solemnly” exactly as written. Those who alter the words of their oaths or deliver them in an “insincere or undignified manner” will not be allowed to retake them and will be barred from office, according to a copy of the interpretation published by Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

The decision also says lawmakers will be held liable if they violate their oaths but provides no guidance on who has the power to determine whether a lawmaker is in breach or what the punishment should be.

“What has been framed as an ‘interpretation’ to bolster the ‘rule of law’ in reality imposes subjective political criteria,” Alvin Cheung, an affiliated researcher at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute of New York University, said in an email.

The oath of office for the legislature includes a vow of allegiance to “the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.” But a small but growing independence movement has adopted a slogan declaring, “Hong Kong Is Not China.”

In a scene that resembled the enormous pro-democracy demonstrations of 2014, the police used pepper spray on Sunday to push back hundreds of protesters gathering after nightfall around the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. After midnight, officers in riot gear began clearing the area of protesters, some of whom were shouting, “Hong Kong independence.”

Source: NYT > World

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