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.