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Political stalemate deepens in divided Hong Kong

HONG KONG -- In a fractured legislature, the tiniest of sparks can trigger a political inferno. That is happening in Hong Kong, where lawmakers have been locked in a heated standoff for weeks over something that is typically a formality for new officials: taking an oath of office.

The chaos comes on the heels of September's election for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's lawmaking body. A third attempt to kick off legislative sessions on Wednesday ended in failure as the council's president, Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, delayed the swearing-in of two pro-independence lawmakers -- Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching of the Youngspiration party -- who have allegedly insulted China. The pair was escorted into the chamber by opposition lawmakers, in defiance of orders by the pro-Beijing Leung that they not be let in. The session was adjourned until next week.

"Allow them to take their oaths according to the law," opposition lawmakers chanted, as security guards stood by amid notices saying that the two not be allowed into the chamber. The scene was very different outside the building, however. Hundreds of protesters affiliated with pro-Beijing associations were calling the two traitors and demanding that they be removed from their seats. Some were reportedly bused in from the mainland.

The drama has erupted at a time of rockier ties between Hong Kong's increasingly polarized legislature and Beijing, which views the growing separatist activities in the former British colony as an imminent threat to its rule.

On Oct. 12, Leung, 30, and Yau, 25, altered their oaths to swear allegiance to the "Hong Kong Nation" and displayed banners that read "Hong Kong is not China." They also pronounced China as "Chee-na," which was criticized by some as a derogatory term used by Japan during its wartime occupation of the country. Their first attempt to take the oath was declared invalid, and their second attempt was thwarted by a walkout by pro-Beijing lawmakers that caused the meeting to be adjourned.

The two are among a new wave of "localist" lawmakers who advocate varying degrees of autonomy in Hong Kong, from self-determination to complete separation from China. Born from the "Umbrella Movement" protests that paralyzed parts of Hong Kong in 2014, the localists surprised many with their election wins, grabbing seven of the 40 directly elected seats in a legislature long dominated by two rival camps -- pro-Beijing loyalists and pan-democrats.

But some observers fear the political gridlock could take a toll on the economy. Albert Chen Hung-yee, a member of the Basic Law Committee and a professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, warned that, "In the long term, the price will be paid in economic terms," citing the numerous important bills that have not been passed due to the ongoing political antagonism.

Speaking on a local news show that was aired Tuesday night, Chen described the current political situation as "more difficult than at any time since the [1997] handover." He also said Hong Kong is lagging behind such rivals as Singapore and even its smaller neighbor, Macau, whose economies have been faring well recently, according to his observations.

Chen also cited Taiwan as a negative example. "Taiwan has already been paying a heavy price for [political] polarization," he said. "There are many serious economic problems in Taiwan because of this polarization between pro-independence people and others."

The Hong Kong government has filed a lawsuit to prevent the two Youngspiration lawmakers from being sworn in, raising concerns that pressure from Beijing is compromising the territory's separation of powers. The court rejected requests for an emergency injunction but agreed to hold a judicial review of the case on Nov. 3.

Some say the government's move is a calculated play in the lead-up to the election for Hong Kong's chief executive, scheduled for next March. Benson Wong Wai-kwok, an assistant professor of politics at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the crackdown on separatists could be seen by some as a "conspiracy" by the territory's unpopular chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, to win Beijing's support for a second term. But with the race shaping up to be a competitive one, a Leung victory is far from guaranteed.

Leung's subordinate and Hong Kong's No. 3 official, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, expressed his intention to "contribute" to the territory in late July by running for the top post. Former Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing also said he would run if no other electable candidates challenged Leung. Woo Kwok-hing, a retired judge, is expected to be the first to officially announce his candidacy for chief executive in a press conference Thursday.

Nikkei deputy editor Kenji Kawase in Hong Kong contributed to this story.

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