Hong Kong’s government has ousted four pro-democracy lawmakers from the city’s de facto parliament using new powers granted by Beijing, in what critics say is part of a growing attack on the territory’s autonomy.

The new provisions allow the government to remove lawmakers on national security grounds. This includes supporting Hong Kong independence or inviting foreign interference in the city’s affairs.

The four have denied any wrongdoing and their 15 pro-democracy colleagues in the city’s Legislative Council have threatened to resign en masse as a gesture of support.

“I would urge the people of Hong Kong we should not give up. We can’t give up,” said Kwok Ka-ki, one of the ousted legislators, who described the disqualifications as “the saddest day of Hong Kong”.

The decision comes as Hong Kong’s opposition politicians, independent journalists, educators and judges are facing increasing pressure after Beijing imposed a tough new national security law on the city in June.

Outspoken academics have been forced to resign and a senior journalist at RTHK, the public broadcaster, was recently arrested after producing a report critical of police actions during anti-government protests last year.

Critics say the security law threatens the civic and political freedoms granted to the territory on its handover to China by the UK in 1997. However, Beijing’s supporters argue it was necessary to restore order to the city.

Pro-democracy lawmakers in LegCo have come under particular pressure, with the city delaying elections for the house until next year, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

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The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, Beijing’s top legislative body, on Wednesday granted the Hong Kong government the authority to disqualify lawmakers who promoted or supported independence or refused to recognise that China exercises sovereignty over Hong Kong.

Those who sought foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs or engaged in other acts that endangered national security could also be disqualified, the NPCSC said, without offering further details.

Critics labelled the measures a “patriot test”.

Alongside Mr Kwok, the disqualified legislators included Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok and Kenneth Leung.

Dixon Ming Sing, a political science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the decision would further dent confidence in China’s promise that the city would continue to enjoy civil freedoms after the handover.

“[It will also] undermine the credibility of the legislature in the eyes of the locals and the international community,” he said.

James To, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party, said the move undermined the “one country, two systems” model, under which Hong Kong was allowed a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the handover.

It “demonstrated that the “Chinese government no longer wishes to implement one country, two systems and wants to kill it 23 years after the handover”, he said.

The oustings follow the disqualifications of six lawmakers-elect by a Hong Kong court during the 2016 election.

On that occasion, the NPCSC reinterpreted the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, to enable the disqualification of members who did not “sincerely believe in and strictly abide by” their oath of allegiance to China.

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Via Financial Times