Britain's last colonial leader of Hong Kong, former governor Chris Patten, hit out at pro-independence campaigners on Friday, saying they have undermined the broader democratic movement in the city.
Patten, who was regularly villified by Chinese officials while in office as governor, said the city's seven million residents should enjoy "the freedom to choose who governs Hong Kong."
But he slammed advocates of independence for the city for "diluting" the case for greater democracy, while praising the 2014 Occupy Central movement for attaining the moral high ground with its "peaceful and mature" campaign.
"It would be dishonest, dishonorable and reckless of somebody like me to pretend that the case for democracy should be mixed up with the argument about the independence of Hong Kong," Patten told the Foreign Correspondents' Club.
In a side-swipe at recent protest oaths taken by two recently elected pro-independence lawmakers at their swearing-in, Patten said independence was "something which is not going to happen, something which dilutes democracy, and something which has led to all sorts of antics which should not take place in a mature society aiming to be a full democracy."
Earlier this month, Hong Kong's High Court ruled against lawmakers-elect Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching after they changed the wording of their oaths, formally barring them from taking up their seats.
The duo both vowed allegiance to the "Hong Kong Nation" and carried banners saying "Hong Kong is not China" when making their oaths on Oct. 12. They also used a historical slur to refer to China, with Yau inserting swear-words into her oath.
'Antics' hurt movement
Their protest prompted the standing committee of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), to intervene with an interpretation of Hong Kong's miniconstitution last week, ruling that only "solemn and sincere" oaths would be accepted from public office-holders.
Patten, whose own attempts to widen the voting franchise in Hong Kong were wiped out with the 1997 handover to Chinese rule, said their "antics" had likely damaged the broader democracy movement in the city.
"I think two years ago many brave young people in Hong Kong established moral high ground about democracy in governance, and I think it would be a tragedy if that high ground was lost because of a few antics about so-called independence for Hong Kong," he said.
Citing the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for the handover, he said the treaty was made on the assumption that the post-1997 Special Administrative Region (SAR) would be an integral part of Chinese territory.
"I ... have great admiration, for those who campaign for democracy," he said, adding that it was "a bit surprising" that more progress towards full democracy hadn't been made in nearly two decades.
"But not those whose campaign dilutes support for democracy and makes a mockery of a serious political argument."
The 79-day Occupy Central democracy movement was triggered by an Aug. 31, 2014 "interpretation" of the Basic Law issued by the NPC standing committee insisting that candidates in forthcoming elections be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee, a proposal that protesters slammed as "fake universal suffrage," and which was later voted down in the Legislative Council (LegCo).
'Self determination' support grows
The movement saw the emergence of a group of young politicians, many of whom began to call for "self determination" in a bid to address growing concerns over the erosion of Hong Kong's traditional freedoms.
Yau and Leung, both members of the group Youngspiration, were among them.
Responding to Patten's remarks, Leung told RFA that the question of independence for Hong Kong is an unavoidable one, however.
"We can't deny demands in Hong Kong for independence or calls for self-determination, because they have been there all along," he said.
"Also, we are talking about considerable numbers of people, based on figures from our election campaign, and that is an objective reality that we have to respect," Leung said.
The pair are appealing the High Court's ruling in a case that entered its second day on Friday.
Their lawyers are arguing that oath-taking is an internal matter for the legislature, and the court should not intervene under the principle of non-intervention.
If the appeal fails, LegCo president Andrew Leung said the council will demand that Leung and Yau repay nearly one million Hong Kong dollars in salary and other payments made when they were elected.
"We will be seeking the full recovery of around H.K.$930,000 dating from Oct. 1," Andrew Leung told reporters on Thursday. "We will consider any arguments they may raise, but we will have to deal very carefully with it, because this is public money."
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.