China's parliament has said it will discuss the status of two newly elected pro-independence lawmakers in Hong Kong who used their swearing-in ceremonies to protest Beijing's rule, as protesters took to the streets in protest at the undermining of the city's judicial system.
The rubber-stamp legislative body the National People's Congress (NPC) will now debate the status of lawmakers-elect Sixtus "Baggio" Leung and Yau Wai-ching, whose oaths were rejected after they pledged allegiance to "the Hong Kong Nation" and not to China.
They later attempted to re-take their oaths, but were prevented by a mass walkout by pro-Beijing LegCo members that rendered the meeting invalid.
Pan-democratic groups took to the streets on Friday in protest at the news, burning photos of NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang, who is believed to have made the decision.
Former student protest leader Nathan Law, now elected to LegCo for the newly formed Demosisto party, urged Hong Kong not to take the decision lying down.
"If we don't protest this, the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party will think that we are a bunch of people who do as they are told, and who can be bullied into submission," Law said. "Maybe we won't get the result we want through protesting, but at least we will uphold the dignity of Hong Kong people."
Democratic Party member Au Nok-hin said organizers were planning a much bigger rally on Sunday.
"I don't think that Hong Kong people will be indifferent to this," he said. "I hope that, once again, we will make history."
The news of Beijing's likely intervention came in a statement from the Hong Kong government, after Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying requested a judicial review of whether the two lawmakers-elect, who are both members of the localist group Youngspiration, should be allowed to take up their seats.
"The question of interpreting Article 104 of the Basic Law has been included in the agenda for the meeting of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress," the government said in a statement late on Thursday.
Undermining Hong Kong's High Court
Article 104 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, requires that holders of public office swear allegiance both to the Hong Kong government and to the People's Republic of China.
Arguments were heard in the judicial review on Thursday, but top lawyers warned that any pronouncement by Beijing would undermine the city's High Court.
Dennis Kwok, who represents the legal profession in LegCo, said lawyers would hold a silent march on Tuesday, the fourth such protest since the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
The lawyers plan to gather at the High Court and end at the Court of Final Appeal, Kwok told reporters.
Maria Tam, who represents Hong Kong at the NPC in Beijing, and who advises the body on the Basic Law, said the decision to discuss the matter by the standing committee likely came at the instigation of NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang.
"The Basic Law Committee has received a letter from [Zhang] requesting that our views be sought on the interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law," Tam told reporters on Friday, adding that the request hadn't come from the Hong Kong government.
"I believe that the main reasons are that the reunification of the country and territorial integrity are very important issues [to Beijing]," she said.
A recent opinion survey showed that almost 40 percent of young people in Hong Kong favor independence for the city in 2047, when existing arrangements with China expire.
But Beijing has repeatedly warned that "separatist" ideas won't be tolerated in the former British colony, and recent election candidates were forced to sign a declaration rejecting independence.
Tam denied that an intervention from the NPC would undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong.
"Whether the NPC issues an interpretation sooner or later is more a question of how we weigh the balance of power, rather than a question of undermining the rule of law," she said.
Booksellers' case underscores erosion of freedoms
Under the terms of the 1997 handover, Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" and the continuation of its traditional freedoms for 50 years.
But journalists, lawyers and diplomats have said that Hong Kong's traditional freedoms of speech, publication and judicial independence are now being eroded, following the cross-border detentions of five booksellers and an attempt by city officials to influence sentences handed down to leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy protests by a local court.
Sixtus Leung hit out at both Zhang Dejiang and Hong Kong's chief executive on Friday, saying they were undermining the city's courts.
"The interpretation of the NPC standing committee brings a lethal blow to the legal system and the rule of law in Hong Kong," he said.
"C.Y. Leung and Zhang Dejiang are the traitors of Hong Kong. They must bear full responsibility."
Former lawmaker and senior legal counsel Ronny Tong agreed.
"The greatest damage to our legal system will come through a general lack of trust in our judicial process, and of respect for our judiciary," Tong told RFA on Friday. "It's a question of attitude, rather than the matter being discussed."
He said the legal system should be allowed to work out its usual progression through two levels of the High Court to Court of Final Appeal, before being referred to Beijing.
"If an interpretation were needed, then the Court of Final Appeal would naturally request it to help it conclude a judicial process," Tong said.
"If they stop following that progression, and move straight to an interpretation, then it would be a great shame, and very disappointing."
The NPC standing committee has the final say in the interpretation of the Basic Law, the last stop after the Court of Final Appeal.
Reported by Goh Fung and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Wang Siwei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.