Hong Kong police fired pepper spray and protesters threw bottles and road cones in clashes near China’s representative office on Sunday night where activists had gathered to demonstrate against Beijing’s attempts to stop a fledgling independence movement.
A ruling on Monday from a top committee of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, is expected to effectively bar the recently elected lawmakers Yau Wai-ching, and Baggio Leung from taking office in Hong Kong’s legislature.
The pair pledged allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation” and displayed a “Hong Kong is not China” banner during a swearing-in ceremony for the city’s legislative council in October. Their oaths were not accepted and their right to re-take them is being challenged in the local courts by the Hong Kong government.
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The situation is seen by many of Hong Kong’s legal and political elite as one of the biggest tests the financial hub has faced since its handover to China nearly two decades ago, with some fearing its independent rule of law is under threat.
Hundreds of police, some with riot shields and batons, and some behind temporary metal barricades, were seen near the central government’s Liaison Office, traditionally well protected by local police, and viewed by many as a symbol of Beijing’s increasing influence on the free-wheeling city.
As police reinforced their lines, protesters took their own precautions, some donning masks and goggles and wrapping cling film over their eyes to protect against pepper spray.
At least one protester was arrested. About 20 were hit by pepper spray – some protecting themselves with umbrellas, the symbol of the 79-day democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014.
“This is about our future,” said one woman, while others chanted for independence, long a taboo subject in the global financial hub and anathema to Beijing’s Communist Party leaders.
The standing committee of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, this weekend discussed invoking a rarely used power to interpret Hong Kong’s mini “Basic Law” constitution to stop Yau, 25, and Leung, 30, from taking office.
China Central Television quoted national lawmakers as saying the pair were a threat to China’s “sovereignty and security”.
“If this kind of situation continues it will harm the immediate interests of the people of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the interests of national development. The central government cannot sit by indifferently,” they were quoted as saying.
As such, an NPC interpretation was “very timely and extremely necessary”, the report said.
Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that gave the territory wide-ranging autonomy, including judicial freedom.
Martin Lee, a veteran pro-democratic figure and barrister, said Beijing’s move would bind the hands of the Hong Kong court that will hear the government’s challenge against the pair.
“(It) makes it impossible for the court to exercise its own judgment,” he said.
The Hong Kong Bar Association has said an intervention by Beijing now would deal a “severe blow” to the city’s judicial independence and undermine international confidence in Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Earlier on Sunday, thousands – including Yau and Leung -marched to the city’s financial district. Several hundred then pressed on to Beijing’s Liaison Office. Organizers put the numbers at 11,000; police said 8,000 turned out.