China on Monday issued a formal decree banning two pro-independence Hong Kong lawmakers from office after they changed the wording of their oaths at their swearing-in ceremonies last month.
The standing committee of the country's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), issued an interpretation of Hong Kong's miniconstitution which critics said amounted to arbitrary tinkering with the city's laws.
"An oath taker who intentionally reads out words which do not accord with the wording of the oath prescribed by law, or takes the oath in a manner which is not sincere or not solemn, shall be treated as declining to take the oath," the interpretation said.
"The oath so taken is invalid and the oath taker is disqualified forthwith from assuming ... public office," it said.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, clashing with police who fired pepper spray into the crowd, as a protest rally turned into a mass demonstration against Beijing's intervention in the city's political life.
The interpretation, which has effectively nullified a pending judicial review in Hong Kong's High Court, looks set to lead to the disqualification of Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching, members of the Youngspiration party elected to the Legislative Council (LegCo) in September.
The pair altered the wording of their oaths to swear allegiance to the "Hong Kong Nation," carrying slogans into the LegCo chamber that read "Hong Kong is not China."
Their oaths were rejected by LegCo president and pro-Beijing politician Andrew Leung, who welcomed the intervention on Monday.
"I accept the legal interpretation issued by the NPC standing committee, in the interests of protecting national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity," he told reporters.
"I also believe that the ... interpretation will be helpful to LegCo members in helping them to swear in with valid oaths and take up their seats," he said.
China sees 'grave dangers'
Li Fei, who heads the NPC's Basic Law committee, said talk of independence "splits the country."
"The central government is highly concerned about the grave dangers the Hong Kong independence forces bring to the country and to Hong Kong," he told reporters on Monday.
But Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok, who represents the legal profession in LegCo, said the interpretation went beyond its apparent remit in interpreting Article 104 of the Basic Law, which governs the swearing-in of public servants.
"This is not, strictly speaking, an interpretation of Article 104 itself," he said. "It is using the name and label interpretation and trying to read into what is not there; trying to create local legislation and trying to interfere [with] domestic legislation."
"They are trying to read [meanings] into the requirements that are plainly not there," Kwok said.
Pan-democratic lawmaker James To said Beijing had overstepped the mark and tried to "play the role of government ... the courts ... and legislature" in amending Hong Kong laws, rather than merely interpreting them.
"The [committee] has already expanded ... on the meaning of certain wordings, and ... is playing half of the role of the Hong Kong court," To told journalists.
The Hong Kong Bar Association said the timing of the interpretation was "most unfortunate."
"In the perception of the international community [the] independence of the judiciary is liable to be undermined, as would public confidence in the rule of law in Hong Kong," the group said in a statement on its website.
Hong Kong's pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper reported on Monday that the oaths of around 10 other lawmakers could now be reviewed to ensure they were also in line with the interpretation, including the use of "props" during swearing-in ceremonies.
Pro-independence sentiment strong among youth
Some pan-democratic lawmakers held a yellow umbrella in a reference to the 2014 pro-democracy movement for universal suffrage, and could now face being barred, possibly threatening the pro-democracy camp's position in LegCo, it said.
State news agency Xinhua said in an editorial that the interpretation was "a necessary step to safeguard the legal foundation of [Hong Kong]."
"The interpretation aims to warn 'pro-independence' people that Hong Kong is an indispensable part of China, and 'Hong Kong independence' will never happen in any circumstances," the editorial, which would have been approved at the highest level in the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said.
It added: "The words and deeds inciting to split the country by some legislators-elect have touched ... political and legal limits."
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.
On Oct. 12, Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching carried flags saying "Hong Kong is not China" into the chamber for their swearing-in ceremonies, during which they referred to China by a historical slur used by Imperial Japan, "Shina."
Using English, one of Hong Kong's official languages, both swore allegiance to the "Hong Kong Nation" rather than to the People's Republic of China.
Yau also referred to the "People's Re-F**king of Shina" three times during her oath, while independent lawmaker Edward Yiu added lines to his, vowing to safeguard procedural justice, fight for sustainable development, and demand true universal suffrage for Hong Kong.
The city's Legislative Council (LegCo) refused to accept the oaths of all three members and said they were ineligible to vote for the LegCo president. Yiu has since repeated his oath and taken up his seat.
Dozens of pro-Beijing lawmakers then staged a walk-out to prevent Yau and Sixtus Leung from taking their oaths again, while the city's chief executive Leung Chun-ying filed a request for a judicial review of the pair's status with the High Court.
'Basically China's puppet'
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.
One of the booksellers, Lam Wing-kei, told RFA on Monday that Hong Kong's traditional freedoms are fast losing any power under Chinese rule.
"The fact that the chief executive couldn't wait to get Beijing to issue an interpretation shows us that the Hong Kong government is basically China's puppet," Lam said.
"It also shows that mainland China is intent on stepping up control over Hong Kong as soon as possible, undermining the ... Hong Kong judiciary."
He called for a "halfway house of democratic self-determination," rather than formal independence.
Across the internal immigration border in mainland China, many commentators expressed support for the NPC's ruling on the country's tightly controlled social media platforms.
But Guangzhou-based democracy activist Ye Du said Beijing had only itself to blame for the rise of pro-independence sentiment among young people in the two years since the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy Central movement, however.
"At the heart of the problem lies the rise of the localist movement among Hong Kong's young people in the wake of China's refusal [of fully democratic elections]," he said.
"I think the Chinese government is very worried indeed that two young localists were able to get elected to LegCo," Ye said. "The oaths row gave them an opportunity to make an example to the people of Hong Kong."
Mainland Chinese rights activist Wang Fazhan agreed.
"They should think about why some people in Hong Kong are starting to want independence," Wang said. "The problem most likely lies with them."
Reported by Lee Lai, Goh Fung and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.