China's parliament has effectively barred pro-independence legislators from the territory's Legislative Council. The move by the Communist party was made through a controversial reading of Hong Kong's constitution.
The interpretation of Hong Kong's Basic Law stipulates that lawmakers must swear allegiance to the city as part of China when they take office. At a swearing-in ceremony last month, two recently elected Hong Kong lawmakers, Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching, altered their oaths to insert a disparaging Japanese term for China.
The stunt last month upset Beijing, which considers talk of independence to be treason. In issuing its ruling on Monday, it said the actions of the two lawmakers "posed a grave threat to national sovereignty and security," the state Xinhua news agency reported.
Li Fei, deputy secretary general of China's top legislative panel, said that the comments amounted to an intentional insult. "All traitors who sell out our country will never meet good ends," he said.
Now the Beijing's National People's Congress says that by deliberately altering their oaths, their swearing-in "should be determined to be invalid, and cannot be retaken."
Hong Kong's leader, Leung Chun-ying, told reporters that he and the city government would "implement the interpretation fully." It also says those who advocate for independence are not only disqualified from election and from assuming posts as lawmakers, but should also be investigated for their legal obligations.
Deepening rift with mainland China
Yau and Leung were among several Hong Kong lawmakers campaigning for self-determination who won seats in September polls. Having them disqualified from office would be a favorable outcome for China's Communist leaders, who have become increasingly uneasy with the city's growing independence movement.
The decision to invoke a rarely used power to interpret the constitution marks Beijing's most direct intervention in the semi-autonomous city's political system since it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Thousands of people took to the streets in Hong Kong on Sunday to demand that China's central government stay out of the dispute. Fears about China's increasing encroachment on freedoms in the former British colony prompted mass protests in 2014.
Britain transferred Hong Kong to Chinese control under a "one country, two systems" formula that gave the territory wide-ranging autonomy, including judicial freedom guided by a mini-constitution called the Basic Law.
nm/kms (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)