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Hong Kong protesters stand down as city braces for China ruling
[HONG KONG] Hundreds of protesters in Hong Kong ended an hours-long standoff with police early Monday ahead of an expected decision by China to reinterpret the former British colony's law in a way that would bar pro-independence activists from the legislature.
Demonstrators blocked a road on Sunday night near China's liaison office, leaving buses and trams stranded until they dispersed around 3am local time. Earlier, police used pepper spray in confrontations with protesters, some of whom wore face masks and chanted "Hong Kong independence". Four people were arrested, police said.
As soon as Monday, the National People's Congress Standing Committee in Beijing could issue the rare interpretation of Hong Kong law, which China's top legislative body deemed "timely and necessary" amid growing pro-independence activities, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
The move comes amid a court battle over whether a pair of pro-independence activists who were elected to the city's legislature in September could take their seats after insulting China in their oaths of office.
While the committee meets behind closed doors and hasn't released a draft, lawyers and democracy advocates have warned that the intervention could undermine Hong Kong's courts and spark unrest. The move would represent only the second unilateral change of local law since the city's return in 1997 on a promise to maintain "one country, two systems" for 50 years.
"If they go ahead and make an interpretation tomorrow, Hong Kong people will be infuriated and this will almost certainly add to the independence movement," Chapman Chen, who joined the protest, said on Sunday.
"'One country, two systems' is an illusion - 2047 has come. Hong Kong autonomy is fake."
Prior to the clashes with police on Sunday evening, protesters conducted a peaceful march in the afternoon that featured banners saying "hands off our judiciary" and at least one Taiwanese flag. Organisers said it attracted 13,000 people, putting it among the largest in Hong Kong since the Occupy movement blocked commercial districts two years ago. Police put the figure at 8,000.
Later on, a smaller group headed west to China's Liaison Office, a diversion from the planned route. Police said they initially allowed that march until participants blocked two main thoroughfares and began charging police lines.
While officers respect freedom of expression and assembly, they "strongly condemned the protesters for their law-breaking acts which endangered the safety of themselves and obstructed other road users," the police said in a statement.
Hong Kong's Basic Law, drafted in consultation with the British, declares the city an "inalienable part" of China and requires lawmakers to swear an oath to uphold the law. The pro-independence activist legislators, Sixtus "Baggio" Leung, 30, and Yau Wai-ching, 25, had their oaths voided Oct 12 after mispronouncing the country's name and unfurling banners proclaiming "Hong Kong IS NOT China."
When the legislature president decided to let the localists retake their oaths, Hong Kong's China-backed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, asked a local court to block the move and vacate their seats. Lawmakers in Beijing also began discussions on taking a little-used step to interpret the Basic Law.
The would-be lawmakers have "hit the bottom line" of the city's guaranteed autonomy, and "posed a grave threat to national sovereignty and security," Xinhua cited the NPC Standing Committee as saying late Saturday. The central authorities couldn't afford to idly sit and do nothing as people display "Hong Kong independence" banners and establish separatist organisations, the report said.
Still, the move carries risk. A different kind of NPC Standing Committee edict two years ago - one prescribing a Beijing-controlled process for electing Hong Kong's top leader - sparked the mass Occupy protests that shut down some city shopping streets for weeks. A more radical "localist" movement arose in the aftermath.
Sixtus Leung, the pro-independence lawmaker, said during Sunday's march that the crowd illustrated the strength of the city's opposition to China's perceived meddling in local affairs.
"We have to let China know we can't accept they destroy the integrity of our legal systems," Ken Chan, 22, a university student, said at the protest before it broke up.
"They have to know we are here to voice against their intervention."