FILE - A copy of Time Magazine featuring portraits of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and former leader Mao Zedong on its cover is seen on display at an annual book fair in Hong Kong, July 20, 2016.
FILE - A copy of Time Magazine featuring portraits of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and former leader Mao Zedong on its cover is seen on display at an annual book fair in Hong Kong, July 20, 2016.

After two elected Hong Kong lawmakers took an oath of office, advocating a divide in the “one country, two systems” principle, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed legislators in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, making it clear that looking forward, there is only one China.

Xi said, "All activities attempting to split the country will definitely be strongly opposed by all Chinese people. We will resolutely not allow anyone, any organization, any party to split any bit of territory from China, in any way at any time."

His address raised more questions about Hong Kong's future than it answered.

This year, Hong Kong began requiring office seekers to pledge their loyalty to one China. So, even before the Hong Kong legislative elections, many analysts and observers questioned where the political process was headed.

In August, David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told VOA, “Where it ultimately ends up in terms of degree of tolerance is anybody’s guess. But I think the space for civic activity and citizen participation in meaningful governance ... unfortunately that is going down in both China and, I’m afraid to say, Hong Kong.”

A protester holds a yellow umbrella in front of po
A protester holds a yellow umbrella in front of police officers after clashing as thousands of people march in a Hong Kong street, Nov. 6, 2016.

Hong Kong oath-taking controversy
Xi's comments were sparked when Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching, members of the Youngspiration Party, deviated from the standard oath text after they appeared last month to take their seats in the Hong Kong Legislative Council.

Appearing draped in a flag that read, “Hong Kong is not China,” Sixtus Leung pledged loyalty to a Hong Kong nation. Yau Wai-ching appeared to have slipped in a profane remark when reading “People’s Republic of China.”

Their oaths were not accepted, they were denied their seats, and a legal challenge was filed as to whether to afford them the opportunity to retake their pledges.

The pair were elected in the September 4 Hong Kong Legislative Council elections, along with advocates for the Special Administrative Region’s “self-determination” or independence.

In total, 15 local and pan-democratic party members’ oaths are under review, based on the National People's Congress interpretation. Pro-Beijing lawmakers are also facing scrutiny for varying pronunciations of words or omitting the word “Hong Kong” in their oaths, as the chief executive did in 2012.

While the matter was under review in Hong Kong’s High Court, China’s National People's Congress (NPC) issued its interpretation of Hong Kong's Basic Law, noting, "An oath taker who intentionally reads out words which do not accord with the wording of the oath prescribed by law, or takes the oath in a manner which is not sincere or not solemn, shall be treated as declining to take the oath" and is disqualified from assuming public office.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Chun-Ying Leung, said he and his government would support the NPC interpretation.

"Hong Kong is an inalienable part of the country. The Hong Kong people have the duty to uphold national unity, territorial integrity and security, as well as the dignity and interests of the Chinese people,” he said.

Newly elected Hong Kong lawmakers Yau Wai-ching (
Newly elected Hong Kong lawmakers Yau Wai-ching (center left) and Sixtus Leung talk to journalists during a press conference outside the high court in Hong Kong, Nov. 15, 2016.

Concerns emerge over Hong Kong autonomy

Others in Hong Kong opposed the interpretation. Civic Party legislator Dennis Kwok said it is unprecedented. "What in fact they're [NPC] doing is interpreting and interfering with domestic Hong Kong legislation, the legislation being the oaths and declaration ordinance," he said.

Tuesday, Judge Thomas Au of the High Court in Hong Kong ruled Leung's and Yau's oaths of office were invalid. He said they "have been disqualified from assuming and have vacated the office of a member of the Legislative Council."

He added their manner showed they weren’t intending to abide by the Basic Law and that regardless of Beijing’s interpretation, the court would have arrived at this decision.

Appearing before reporters, Yau said she wasn’t surprised.
"If the court has to use this way to disqualify us from being legislators, I think everybody has an idea of what our society is like," Yau said.

Jonathan Miller, Fellow for the China, East Asia and United States Program at the EastWest Institute, says the “crucial area of scrutiny” should focus on "the response and resolve of the Hong Kong government to events, rather than the heavy-handed tactics from Beijing.”

Miller says Xi’s comments were designed to send a message. “I think he wanted to hammer home there’s a red line when it comes to party control [and] anything that’s perceived to erode the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party will be tightly cracked down upon,” he said.

In Washington, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton have introduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which they say would establish "punitive measures against government officials in Hong Kong or mainland China who are responsible for suppressing basic freedoms in Hong Kong."
VOA’s Victor Beattie contributed to this report.