Beijing could throw its weight behind attempts by the Hong Kong government to bar two democratically elected independence activists from taking up their seats in the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), the city's leader has indicated.
Chief executive Leung Chun-ying said on Tuesday that he may ask Beijing to "interpret" the city's miniconstitution, the Basic Law, if a court review of the lawmakers' status doesn't go the government's way.
Sixtus "Baggio" Leung and Yau Wai-ching of the localist group Youngspiration, who were elected to LegCo in last September's elections, used their swearing-in ceremony last month to pledge to represent the "Hong Kong nation," inserting swear-words, slurs, and pro-independence slogans into their oaths.
They were unable to take up their seats, as their oaths were deemed invalid by LegCo chairman Andrew Leung, and the government sought their removal from office with a judicial review in the High Court, which will be decided on Thursday.
Sixtus Leung, 30, and Yau, 25, later attempted to re-take their oaths, but were thwarted by a mass walkout of pro-Beijing LegCo members, rendering the ceremony invalid.
Leung told reporters on Tuesday that he could ask China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), to use its ultimate power to interpret the Basic Law.
"We hope to do our utmost to resolve it within Hong Kong, but we cannot rule out this possibility," Leung said.
"Apart from the case in court....there is a high possibility that other things might be triggered by their oaths and their words and actions afterwards," Leung said, who recently postponed a trip to Beijing pending the court's decision.
Democratic Party lawmaker James To hit out at Leung's comments, saying they threaten the independence of the judges currently deliberating on the case.
"When the court is hearing a case, and someone, particularly officials from the executive, makes comments about interpreting the law, or that they can't rule out [asking Beijing], this is effectively a threat to judicial independence," To told reporters on Tuesday.
"At the very least, it is a reminder, or pressure on the court, that an interpretation [by Beijing] might be the outcome," he said. "I don't think that's appropriate."
Secretary for Security Rimsky Yuen had previously said the government has confidence in the courts to handle the issue.
"I believe in our courts, and in our officials, who I am sure are fair and impartial, even-handed, and professional," Yuen said earlier.
"I still hope to see the issue resolved by our own judicial system."
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 sparked the 79-day Occupy Central democracy movement in the same year, with protesters slamming the decree as "fake universal suffrage."
China's National People's Congress (NPC) is the final and highest power tasked with interpreting Hong Kong's Basic Law, but only after the territory's own legal processes have been exhausted at the final appeals court, which was set up in 1997 to take over the role filled by the House of Lords under British colonial rule.
However, pan-democratic politicians have criticized such interventions as interference in the city's affairs, breaking with the promises of a "high degree of autonomy" made as part of the handover treaty with the U.K.
A political force
Localist groups have emerged as a political force in the city since the failure of the 2014 Occupy Central movement to persuade the authorities to allow fully democratic elections, in spite of an order from Beijing that all candidates must be vetted by its supporters.
While some localists stop short of advocating formal independence, they are largely united in their desire to minimize the effects of Chinese rule in the city, amid widespread concerns over the erosion of its traditional freedoms.
The growing movement, which has a huge support base among younger voters, has drawn withering comment and warnings from Beijing, which regards support for independence as anathema.
But the movement has been fueled by fears that Beijing's growing interference in the city, especially the cross-border detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers by Chinese police for selling "banned" political titles to customers across the internal immigration border, has undermined that autonomy, journalists, activists, and diplomats say.
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 says this is out of the question, and Leung has ordered schools to punish any talk of the topic among students, threatening teachers with deregistration if they are found encouraging it.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.