Two radical Hong Kong lawmakers who support the semiautonomous territory’s independence from China have been banned from serving in the local legislature after Beijing stepped in to issue a rare interpretation of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution. It is Beijing’s most severe infringement on Hong Kong’s autonomy since the U.K. returned the colony to Chinese rule in 1997.
The lawmakers, 30-year-old Sixtus “Baggio” Leung and 25-year-old Yau Wai-ching, are being penalized for delivering oaths of office that authorities considered seditious. The interpretation that came Monday was to the point. “Anyone who intentionally reads an oath inconsistent with the legally prescribed oath, or takes their oath in any untruthful and unserious way also constitutes a refusal to take the oath,” it read. “Their oaths will be invalid, and they will be disqualified from the relevant post[s].”
Reached via WhatsApp around lunchtime on Monday, Yau said she and Leung would not speak publicly about the interpretation until they have sought legal advice.
Leung and Yau are two of the several young politicians who came to prominence in the tense years following the massive pro-democracy protests, known as the Umbrella Revolution, in the fall of 2014. They were elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on Sept. 4, and advocate for an independent Hong Kong — a demand that is anathema to Beijing, which has ultimate sovereignty over the territory that otherwise enjoys democratic freedoms under a constitutional arrangement known as “one country, two systems.”
On Oct. 12, when the incoming lawmakers gave their oaths of office, Leung and Yau instead put on a performance: donning flags that read “Hong Kong Is Not China,” pledging allegiance to the “Hong Kong Nation,” and referring to China as Shina, a Japanese affectation regarded as highly derogatory following the wartime occupation. The backlash was massive. Local media has pilloried the duo, who belong to a radical party called Youngspiration, and on Oct. 18, Hong Kong’s government — widely recognized as Beijing’s puppet — filed for a judicial review into whether the two would be allowed to take their oaths. (Yau has told TIME on several occasions that she is willing to deliver the oath of office as prescribed, which demands allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China and to the Basic Law.)
Last Thursday, however, the government announced that the ultimate decision would come from Beijing, in an unprecedented blow to both the democratic and judicial institutions enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution. The mainland’s top legislative organ, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), would deliver an interpretation of the Basic Law’s Article 104, which stipulates the oath. In a widely-shared essay published in The Guardian Monday, democrat lawmaker Claudia Mo described the move as “the beginning of the end of Hong Kong.”
The interpretation came just hours after the end of one of the largest protests in Hong Kong since the demonstrations of 2014. A peaceful march to Beijing’s headquarters to decry the intervention turned violent when protesters attempted to storm a police barricade near the office. Police responded with tear gas and baton strikes; protesters then relocated to occupy a major intersection nearby for most of the evening.
Speaking on the decision Monday, Li Fei, chairman of the mainland organ responsible for interpreting the Basic Law, said that mainland authorities are “determined to firmly confront the pro-independence forces without any ambiguity.” He also condemned more moderate political progressives who call for “democratic self-determination” rather than outright independence, saying the two were ultimately one in the same.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, the widely unpopular head of Hong Kong’s government, told the press on Monday that he and his government support and will implement Beijing’s interpretation. He also suggested the government will make moves to enact Article 23, a controversial piece of national security legislation that can criminalize any acts deemed seditious towards the People’s Republic of China. Beijing’s ability to step in, he said, is “an important part of the Hong Kong legal and constitutional system.”
Experts disagree. The Basic Law grants Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” under which it can operate both an independent judiciary and, in a compromise toward democracy, a 70-seat legislature, half of whose members are directly elected. (The other half are representatives of various economic sectors.) In its ruling on Monday, many say, Beijing effectively neutered both in a one-two punch, by bypassing local courts in deciding the fate of lawmakers chosen by the people.
“This is not Canada, where you had two referendums for Quebec’s independence,” David Zweig, an expert on Hong Kong and China at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told TIME on Monday. “This is a state that worries about its unification, that worries there are forces out there trying to pull it apart. China waited a long time to get Hong Kong back, and if you give Beijing the idea that you’re trying to pull things apart, they will come down and get you.”
The irony is that Beijing’s interference will likely only aggravate popular unrest in Hong Kong. This has been the case in the two years since the 2014 protests, which demanded the right to directly elect the Chief Executive. (The office is currently selected by a committee that enacts Beijing’s will.) These reforms did not materialize, and a year later, at the end of 2015, five Hong Kong-based publishers disappeared — four from overseas and one, Lee Bo, from his warehouse on Hong Kong Island. The publishers worked for Mighty Current Media, a house that specialized in sensational books on scandals inside Beijing’s party elite that were popular souvenirs for mainland tourists visiting Hong Kong.
The incident, damned by many as an unlawful crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedom of press, in part fueled the tensions that have given rise in recent months to Hong Kong’s independence movement. The government has done its best to contain this new strain of radical activism, barring many of its representatives from running in September’s Legislative Council elections, but Yau and Leung were able to sneak in by campaigning as “localists” — extreme in their anti-China politics but not specifying that they desired the territory’s utter autonomy.
A number of Hong Kongers have distanced themselves from Yau and Leung in the aftermath of the controversial oath. The consensus among many of them, however, is that the oath was the lesser of two evils.
“I don’t support what Yau and Leung said,” 22-year-old Tong Hiu-yan, a recent university graduate, told TIME at Sunday night’s protest, after saying that she and her fellow demonstrators would remain on the streets overnight. “But [mainland] interference is so much worse. That’s why we’re here.”