The ruling Chinese Communist Party has demanded that the Hong Kong government "report back" to its superiors in Beijing following an unprecedented ban on the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP).
Asked if the request constituted a breach of Hong Kong's autonomy as a supposedly separate jurisdiction from mainland China, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said there had been no interference in the city's political life.
"There's absolutely no question of interference by the Central People's Government," Lam told reporters on Tuesday.
"It has always been the stance of the [Hong Kong] Government, including myself, of a zero tolerance approach against any acts of advocacy of 'independence of Hong Kong'," Lam said.
"I am responsible to the Central People's Government," she said. "It is right that we have invoked local legislation to prohibit the operation of the Hong Kong National Party."
Her comments came after Beijing issued a public letter to Lam and her administration congratulating them on the HKNP ban and requesting a full report on the subject.
Lam said it was "only legitimate" for Beijing to write to her to "demonstrate [its] support."
"I have to submit reports from time to time," Lam said. "On this occasion the Central People's Government asked that I submit a report on the process and related circumstances leading to [the ban]."
"There's absolutely no interference whatsoever from the Central People's Government," she said, rejecting suggestions that she was "kowtowing" to Beijing.
Lam declined to give assurances that her administration won't be pursuing political dissidents in general, however.
"I don't know what ... any individual in Hong Kong is going to take what action and measures and behavior," she said.
"I don't get myself involved in the investigations of my law enforcement bodies. Otherwise, that would be very dangerous for Hong Kong," Lam said.
Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung said Beijing had never used public letters to communicate its wishes to the Hong Kong government in the past.
"Firstly, this hasn't happened before, and secondly, it violates the spirit of the one country, two systems [framework]," Yeung said. "And now they are asking her to submit a report. This is an internal matter; are they going to want reports on all internal matters?"
Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong, said Lam's administration has presided over a number of significant decisions suggesting direct intervention from Beijing in recent years, which have served to erode Hong Kong's traditional freedoms and its promised autonomy after the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
"I think this is all about what you might call the construction of power," Chung said. "The executive has been reaching for more power in a number of recent examples that, taken together, have diminished trust in Hong Kong's freedoms."
Beijing's letter to Lam came after the Executive Council rejected the HKNP's appeal against the ban, which was announced last September, in a move strongly criticized by rights groups and pro-democracy politicians for curbing freedom of speech in the city.
Using colonial-era legislation once used to target "triad" criminal gangs in the city, Hong Kong's secretary for security John Lee announced the move in a formal notice via the government's legislative gazette.
Hong Kong police said the HKNP and its leader Chan Ho-tin, also known as Andy Chan, posed an "imminent threat" to China’s territorial integrity and national security, because Chan had refused to rule out the use of force or civil disobedience in his party's pursuit of independence for the city.
Sixtus Leung, spokesman for pro-independence group the Hong Kong National Front, said the group wasn't surprised by the decision, but that it was illogical and made no legal sense, as it sought to preempt imagined violent actions that hadn't taken place yet.
He said any advocacy of independence would be forced underground by the move, and that his group would also likely be banned.
"If things carry on in the same vein, then this will be inevitable," Leung said. "But it won't just be pro-independence banners, placards and speech."
"This red line will gradually keep shifting until it includes any political opinions and individuals that the regime doesn't like," he warned.
Wayne Chan, convenor of the Students' Independence Union, said his group wouldn't stop advocating independence for the time being, however.
"We still want to be a public-facing organization, and we have some contingency plans in place in case of intense political pressure," Chan told RFA. "Personally, I am mentally prepared to face various political and legal risks."
"If faced with a government crackdown, we plan to stage some political protests," he said.
Reported by Lee Wang-yam and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.