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The cornerstone of the 1997 agreement between China and the United Kingdom that returned Hong Kong to China was the “one country, two systems” formula that was designed to protect the territory’s distinct features — in particular its political system — when it reunited with the mainland. The formula was also intended to sway residents of Taiwan, convincing them that unification would also preserve that island’s political advances.

Unfortunately, in the nearly two decades since reversion, Beijing has become increasingly intolerant of differences in the Special Administrative Region (SAR), as Hong Kong is officially known, particularly in the political realm — where such differences matter most. The most recent and alarming demonstration of disregard for the “one country, two systems” formula was the decision to ban two legislators, elected in September’s ballot, from taking their seats after they “disrespected” China during the swearing-in ceremony. China’s sensitivity is expected, but overruling the Hong Kong judiciary to forbid their service is another matter.

Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching were elected as part of the Youngspiration political party, a group that represents the next generation in Hong Kong and is opposed to the steady encroachment upon Hong Kong’s democracy. During their swearing-in ceremony last month, the two “mispronounced” part of the oath to use derogatory language to describe China and displayed a banner that said in English “Hong Kong is not China.” Thirteen other legislators failed to properly swear allegiance, either by speaking very slowly or making some other show of defiance. The president of the assembly suspended the swearing-in ceremony, and applied for a court determination of whether the two had to be given a second chance to take the oath. The court ruled that they did, but at the second attempt, pro-Beijing legislators, who constitute a majority of seats, walked out of the meeting, denying a quorum and demanding an apology from the two legislators.

Before the court could hear the government’s appeal of its ruling, however, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) concluded that individuals who support Hong Kong independence do not qualify to run for office and cannot serve as members of its legislature and that those who fail to take the oath of office “sincerely” should not be allowed to retake it. According to Zhang Rongshun, vice chairman of the NPC’s legislative affairs commission, that ruling was necessary to protect the dignity of Hong Kong’s legal system. Li Fei, chairman of the Basic Law committee at the NPC, warned that “Since the Legislative Council elections, some people have been advocating independence and saying they want to do it in Legco. The interpretation today will help to defend national unity and sovereignty.”

Beijing has the right to make that ruling. According to the Basic Law, the document that governs Hong Kong, China has final right to interpret the SAR constitution; China asserts that Article 104 gives Beijing the right to overrule any Hong Kong court ruling. This is the fifth time China has used that power to interpret the Basic Law — but only the first time it has intervened while a case was before the Hong Kong judiciary. That aggressive action is the sort of erosion of the Hong Kong “system” that so worries so many people in the SAR. They have been frustrated by a political system that disenfranchised the majority of citizens by denying them a direct vote on legislators. As voting procedures changed, they cried foul by the vetting of candidates by Beijing that silenced critical voices.

For many young people and democrats in the SAR, the final straw came earlier this year when five Hong Kong booksellers were allegedly kidnapped by Chinese security forces to prevent them from publishing and selling books that were critical of or embarrassed the Chinese leadership. That infringement of Hong Kong sovereignty was followed by a decision to block six candidates from running in the September election, which further consolidated anti-Beijing sentiment. The result was an impressive showing by pro-democracy forces. They won 20 percent of the vote, claiming 30 of 70 seats, a bloc large enough to veto government proposals.

Senior Chinese officials have also warned that in addition to barring the two candidates from taking their oath of office, 12 other legislators could be removed for “insincere oath taking,” effectively restoring the pro-Beijing supermajority and nullifying the September results. Such a move would ease concerns in Beijing but it would permanently embitter pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong and confirm to others elsewhere in the region, and especially in Taiwan, that Beijing’s promises are empty.

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