A purge of lawmakers in Hong Kong could weaken pro-democratic voices in the city's legislature, leaving it entirely under Beijing's control, amid an ongoing row over the use of swearing-in ceremonies to make political statements.
Two former members of the Legislative Council (LegCo), Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung, were last month stripped of their seats after losing a court case that argued their oaths of allegiance, taken on Oct. 12, were invalid.
But on Friday, the city's chief executive Leung Chun-ying filed a second lawsuit seeking the disqualification of four other pro-democracy members of LegCo, alleging that their oaths were also "improperly delivered."
Nathan Law, a former student leader of the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement, long-time social activist Leung Kwok-hung, independent candidate Edward Yiu, and Lau Siu-lai of Democracy Groundwork are now being targeted for dismissal.
Hong Kong's High Court ruled against Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung last month, formally barring them from taking up their seats after a high-level intervention from Beijing, and their appeal to the Supreme Court was also rejected.
The pair, both members of the pro-independence group Youngspiration, vowed allegiance to the "Hong Kong Nation" and carried banners saying "Hong Kong is not China" during their swearing-in ceremonies.
They also used a historical slur to refer to China, with Yau inserting swear-words into her oath.
But the standing committee of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), intervened with a ruling that only "solemn and sincere" oaths would be accepted from public office-holders.
Thousands took to the streets to protest against the NPC's intervention, which lawyers and civil rights advocates said undermined judicial independence in the former British colony.
On Monday, Hong Kong's finance chief John Tsang refused to take questions from the four LegCo members targeted in Friday's lawsuit, although chief executive Leung distanced himself from the move on Tuesday, saying it was done without his knowledge.
Democratic Party chairman and LegCo member Wu Chi-wai said he doesn't believe Leung's claim that he had no idea of Tsang's plan to snub the four lawmakers, saying that the government is now clearly in disarray ahead of elections for the city's next chief executive in March.
"I don't believe this," Wu said. "John Tsang has worked in government for so long, that I don't believe he would just come out and say something like this without going through some sort of decision-making process."
"The entire administration is internally breaking down and fracturing, and now we are starting to see signs of the internal power struggle manifest themselves," he said. "Nobody now believes that the forthcoming budget or annual executive's report can be relied upon."
Democracy Groundwork's Lau Siu-lai agreed.
"I think that it's now very clear to everyone that Leung Chun-ying has a power struggle on his hands now; people aren't stupid," he said. "They think that Leung Chun-ying is going back on a previous agreement [made with Tsang], and they will make their own judgement about how much to trust what he says."
The rift comes after Tsang announced he was seriously considering throwing his hat into the ring in the next race for Hong Kong's top job, which is decided by a 1,200 election committee hand-picked by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Meanwhile, relations between LegCo and Leung's administration are being strained to breaking point amid wider social tensions over the erosion of Hong Kong's traditional freedoms, which it was supposed to retain under the terms of the 1997 handover from Britain to China.
If the government succeeds in disqualifying all six lawmakers, the pan-democratic camp will retain its power to veto constitutional changes, but would be weakened when voting on any other business.
Since the failure of the 2014 Occupy Central movement to secure fully democratic elections for Hong Kong, support has been growing for the idea of independence, especially among younger people.
Democratic politicians won 29 out of 70 seats in September's LegCo elections. By-elections will soon be called to replace the two disqualified lawmakers, reducing the pan-democratic camp's numbers, at least temporarily.
In the past, pan-democrats have succeeded in blocking unpopular national security legislation as well as the 2014 proposals for electoral reforms that were slammed as "fake universal suffrage" by the Occupy Central movement.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.