Thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday in protest against Beijing's intervention in a row over the swearing-in of two pro-independence lawmakers, with police firing pepper spray on demonstrators amid clashes later in the evening.
Huge crowds poured out in a mass march against a planned interpretation of the city's mini-constitution by China's parliament, later using umbrellas to ward off pepper spray attacks in clashes reminiscent of the 2014 pro-democracy movement.
The initial march rallied outside the Court of Final Appeal in the city, amid strong criticism that intervention by ruling Chinese Communist Party officials had damaged the independence of the city's courts.
Organizers said some 11,000 people, some of whom were chanting pro-independence slogans, turned out for the main demonstration, while police put the figure at 8,000.
Live footage of the protests streamed to the website of the Apple Daily newspaper showed rows of police in full riot gear lining the edge of a large crowd late on Sunday, while loudspeakers urged them to "leave immediately."
The standoff and clashes continued until the early hours of the morning in working-class Western District, where some of the crowd unidentified objects and wielded umbrellas to shield themselves against pepper spray.
Protesters faced off against police in at least two areas by the Western police station, local media reported.
China's rubber-stamp parliament has said it will discuss the status of newly elected pro-independence lawmakers Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching after they used their swearing-in ceremonies to protest Beijing's rule in the city.
The pair had their oaths rejected last month 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.
"For them to issue an interpretation at this time would have a huge influence on the court's decision making," protest organizer Au Nok-hin told the rally earlier in the day.
"Why not trust Hong Kong's judicial system? Why do they have to trample it with a ruling from the National People's Congress (NPC)?" he said. "This should be resolved at the local level."
Undermining Hong Kong courts
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 a judicial review by the city's High Court on Thursday, but top lawyers warned that any pronouncement by Beijing would undermine the city's courts.
As the protests escalated on Sunday, former Occupy Central student leader Nathan Law, who was recently elected as a lawmaker, called on the crowd to leave after the rally.
"We are currently in unfavorable position, geographically. I suggest we leave now," he told the crowd.
But hundreds were still there at around 4 a.m. on Monday, local time, live video feeds showed.
Yau Wai-ching called on people to find their own methods to protest the intervention.
"I suggest we continue the rally but in the ‘wild cat’ style. Everyone can do it his way," she said.
As public anger spilled onto Hong Kong's streets, China's state-controlled media stepped up support for direct intervention.
NPC delegates were quoted by state broadcaster CCTV as saying that Leung and Yau were a threat to China's "sovereignty and security."
"The central government cannot sit by indifferently," they were quoted as saying.
The broadcast said an interpretation was "very timely and extremely necessary," Reuters reported.
No tolerance for separatist ideas
Democratic Party founder member Martin Lee, who helped draft the Basic Law before the 1997 handover to Chinese rule, accused Chinese officials of interfering with the separation of powers in Hong Kong.
"Now, normally this is a matter for the court, but now they want to give it to the secretary-general of the Legislative Council, and he is a civil servant, who will then decide whether such a person is honest about his intentions," Lee told Hong Kong government broadcaster RTHK.
"If there is an interpretation, it will not be up to our judges to decide whether someone who has been elected as a Legislative Councillor and who has taken an oath in an unusual way, whether that will be interpreted as [their] having declined or neglected to give the oath," Lee said.
Both Yau and Leung are members of the pro-independence group Youngspiration. 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 for the former British colony.
Maria Tam, who represents Hong Kong at the NPC, said Chinese officials "resolutely oppose" any words or deeds that "split the country."
"They believe that the oath should be a solemn thing, and that there are legitimate conditions to be observed," she said on Sunday.
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.
Reported by Lee Lai and Dai Weisen for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.