By David Tweed

(Bloomberg) — Hong Kong moved to oust four more pro-democracy lawmakers, an escalation of a weeks-long oath-taking controversy that threatens to tip the balance of power in China’s favor in the city’s legislature.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to disqualify the legislators on grounds they failed to properly deliver their oaths of office before taking up their seats in October. Those targeted for removal included Nathan Law, 23, a leader of the 2014 Occupy Central protests, and Leung “Long Hair” Kwok-hung, 60, a long-time antagonist of the chief executive.

“This is an unprecedented attack on the opposition and the will of the people,” said Kevin Yam, a convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group. “What we are seeing here is a total lack of restraint in the exercise of power.”

The move follows a court decision last month to vacate the seats of two pro-independence advocates who insulted the country and waved banners saying “Hong Kong IS NOT China” during an Oct. 12 swearing-in ceremony. The incident prompted an unprecedented intervention by the Chinese government to declare that oaths of allegiance to the nation must be taken “sincerely and solemnly.”

Based on Law

Thousands took to the streets to protest against Beijing’s action, which lawyers and civil rights advocates said infringed on the “high degree of autonomy” promised to the former British colony before its return to China in 1997. The two ousted lawmakers are considering petitioning the city’s highest court after losing their first appeal Wednesday.

The Hong Kong government said in a statement after filing the latest lawsuit that the “decision to start these legal proceedings is purely based on the law,” and not political considerations. The four targeted either altered their oaths, added political comments or introduced props to the ceremony, such as a yellow umbrella that symbolizes the 2014 protests. None of them advocated independence from China.

The removal of all six lawmakers would temporarily shift the balance in the 70-seat Legislative Council, giving the pro-establishment camp an opportunity to weaken the few procedural tools the opposition can use to stop or stall legislation. However, the democratic side would retain the power to block changes to the city’s Basic Law, such as proposals to let Beijing vet leadership candidates.

The four lawmakers were joined by pan-democratic peers in an impromptu protest outside the legislative chamber on Friday. Law said he hadn’t received any notification from the government or the courts and was consulting lawyers on a response, Radio Television Hong Kong reported.

Article originally appeared in Bloomberg on 2 December 2016.