Hong Kong was once renowned for being a city which shunned politics in favour of the pragmatic pursuit of profit. Mainland officials would proudly describe the special administrative region as an economic rather than a political city. How things have changed.

The past two turbulent years have seen unprecedented events which have polarised Hong Kong society and raised fundamental questions about the future of the “one country, two systems” concept.

Thousands took to the streets during the pro-democracy Occupy protests in 2014. This year, protests in Mong Kok erupted into violence.

Meanwhile, a pro-independence movement has emerged and gained sufficient support to secure representatives in the Legislative Council, a development which would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

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Beijing has, at the same time, toughened its stance on Hong Kong. A State Council white paper in 2014 asserted the central government’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong. It essentially made the point that the city enjoys only so much autonomy as Beijing is prepared to allow it. The central government then restricted the scope for democratic reform, a move which sparked the Occupy protests.

In recent weeks, Beijing has taken action against the independence movement. Last month it issued an interpretation of Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law, which ensured the disqualification by the courts of two pro-independence legislators who had made offensive comments while taking their oaths.

Matters might have rested there. But the Hong Kong government has raised the stakes. It has now brought similar cases against four other pro-democracy lawmakers, even though their oaths have been accepted by the president of the legislature.

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The affair has raised complex issues concerning the relationship between the government, legislature and judiciary under the Basic Law. The uncertainty it has created descended into farce last week when the financial secretary refused even to take questions from the four lawmakers concerned – a move which was later reversed and earned him a rebuke from the chief executive. Even the government seems confused.

The next few months are going to be critical. There will be by-elections to replace the disqualified lawmakers. The courts will rule on more oath-taking cases. And in March the next chief executive will be elected. Further turbulence is to be expected. But hopefully by the time the city’s new leader is sworn in, outstanding legal issues will be resolved and Hong Kong will be able to look confidently to the future.

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That future depends on the core elements of the “one country, two systems” arrangements remaining intact. Hong Kong is a part of China and that is not going to change. Seeking independence is futile and will only bring the city trouble.

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But Hong Kong is a very special part of China with a separate system. That, too, must be respected. Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy must remain. The city’s freedoms are to be protected and its rule of law maintained. Hong Kong’s institutions, notably the legislature and independent judiciary, must be free to perform their respective roles.

Restraint is needed on all sides. The government might claim it is simply upholding the law by challenging lawmakers’ oaths in court. But many will see the move as an attempt to use the law – as defined by Beijing’s interpretation – to remove democratically elected legislators who oppose the administration. To engineer a shift in power in Legco through such means would undermine the democratic process and would be likely to meet with strong opposition from the community.

The government’s move followed comments by Chen Zuoer (陳佐洱), former deputy director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, in the aftermath of the interpretation. He hit out at Hong Kong authorities, including the judiciary, for failing, as he saw it, to take sufficient action to protect national security. The interpretation, he said, was a “sharp weapon” provided by the central government for use in Hong Kong.

Now, perhaps, we are seeing that weapon being wielded. The worry is that lawmakers and their oaths will not be the only targets. Since the interpretation, there have been calls for existing laws to be used to curb even peaceful advocacy of independence. The chief executive has hinted that new national security legislation, required by Article 23 of the Basic Law, might finally be on the way.

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There is a danger that this stronger assertion of “one country” will erode core elements of “two systems”. That, in turn, is likely to prompt a further reaction in Hong Kong – and so we go on. The Occupy movement and calls for independence were, in part, a response to the slow pace of democratic reform and perceptions of reduced autonomy. There is a need to break the cycle.

Hong Kong will never return to the days when it was seen as an apolitical city. But it can get back to business and achieve the stability and prosperity the Basic Law promises – so long as both “one country” and “two systems” are respected.

Cliff Buddle is the editor of special projects at the South China Morning Post