HONG KONG (Reuters) - The president of the Hong Kong legislature on Tuesday delayed the swearing-in of two pro-independence lawmakers and temporarily banned them from attending meetings, an unprecedented move that follows weeks of pressure from factions loyal to Beijing.
The promotion of independence has long been taboo in the former British colony, governed under the “one country, two systems” principle since its return to Communist Party-ruled China in 1997.
But the topic has been gaining momentum since pro-democracy protests in late 2014 failed to gain any concession from Beijing.
Activists advocating various forms of greater autonomy for Hong Kong, from self-determination to outright independence, gained one in five votes in the city-wide Legislative Council election in September.
The Hong Kong government last week failed to get a court injunction to halt the swearing-in of the two newly elected lawmakers, Yau Wai-ching, 25, and Baggio Leung, 30.
The High Court is due to hold a judicial review of the case on November 3.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, a day before the pair were due to retake their oaths of office, Legislative Council president Andrew Leung said he had made the “difficult” and “painful” decision to prevent the legislature being “ground to a halt”.
“I do not kneel down because of pressure. But this is an unprecedented situation,” Leung said.
The pair would not be allowed to be sworn in and join meetings until the judicial review had been completed, he added.
The two had displayed a “Hong Kong is not China” banner and mispronounced China as a derogatory term during their failed attempt to take an oath earlier this month, an action that sparked “great indignation and strong condemnation” from Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong.
Since then, pro-Beijing forces have expanded their calls to strip the pair of their membership.
Pro-China lawmakers staged a walk-out from the legislature in the new term’s first meeting last Wednesday, denying it a quorum and the chance for the duo to retake their oath.
They then wrote an open letter to the legislature president, saying they would “use all their strength and try all means” to stop the pair’s swearing-in.
A newly formed patriotic alliance plans to mobilize 10,000 demonstrators to rally against the pro-independence activists before Wednesday’s regular meeting, while a barrage of full-paged advertisements condemning the pair flooded Hong Kong’s pro-establishment newspapers last Friday.
Responding to Leung’s decision, the two young legislators criticized him for colluding with pro-Beijing councillors and effectively ignoring the court’s denial of an injunction.
They also said they would insist on entering the council chamber on Wednesday, despite the ban.
Baggio Leung added they do not regret sparking a controversy and would continue to speak their mind.
“The situation is similar to the children’s story, The Emperor’s New Clothes,” he said. “I choose to be the child in the story.”
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had warned earlier on Tuesday the city’s relationship with Beijing could be hurt if the issue is not properly handled.
“I‘m afraid there will be significant and long-lasting effects, because this will affect how the central government sees Hong Kong, and it will affect the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese citizens,” Leung said.
Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie