China could ban two young pro-democracy lawmakers from taking up their places in Hong Kong's parliament, a move seen as deeply unpopular by the city's legal community and opposition politicians.
The mainland's National People's Congress will interpret an article of the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution, that says legislators must swear allegiance to "the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China", the Hong Kong government was told late Thursday night.
Recent weeks have seen the semi-autonomous city thrust on the path to a potential constitutional crisis, as a younger generation of activists faces off against Beijing loyalists.
At a chaotic swearing in ceremony on 12 October, two of the newly elected lawmakers, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus "Baggio" Leung from the Youngspiration party, thumbed their noses at Beijing by refusing to declare their allegiance to China and carrying blue flags reading: "Hong Kong is not China."
Yau caused particular outrage by vowing to defend a place she called "the Hong Kong special administrative region of the People's Refucking of Shina". Shina is an archaic and derogatory way of referring to China in Japanese. Both oaths were rejected.
Beijing moved to decide the outcome of the crisis because it involves national unity and territorial integrity, Maria Tam, a member of the Basic Law committee, told local media .
Hong Kong did not request the interpretation, Tam added, signalling that Beijing took the initiative to preempt a case on the matter currently before a Hong Kong court.
In the aftermath Leung took the highly unusual step of launching legal proceedings in an bid to stop them retaking their oath and taking up their seats.
"The NPC will likely say that those who advocate for Hong Kong independence are not able to swear allegiance to China," Johannes Chan, a law professor at Hong Kong University, said in an interview. "There is no reason this matter cannot be resolved by the court, an NPC interpretation will destroy confidence in the judiciary and no one will trust our legal system in the future if it involves China."
After the UK handed Hong Kong to China in 1997, the city retained many freedoms, including freedom of speech and an independent judiciary, under a framework known as "one country, two systems".
"If Hong Kong's judicial independence is destroyed, then there is no difference between the 'two systems', Hong Kong and China will just be 'one country,'" Chan added. "The rule of law is all we have left."
The fate of the young lawmakers seemed to be a foregone conclusion, according to an editorial in the Global Times , affiliated with the Communist party mouthpiece People's Daily.
"Removing Leung and Yau from the LegCo reflects the will of the entire nation," the editorial said. "We are sure the country will make it happen."
Many in Hong Kong complain those freedoms have been eroded in recent years, leading to nearly three months of street protests in 2014.
If the NPC ruling bars the two lawmakers from taking their seats, new elections will be held, reigniting the controversy surrounding their platform.