WATCHED from Beijing, where the national parliament never shows a glimmer of disloyalty to the Communist Party and its members usually rubber-stamp any bill, the swearing-in of Hong Kong’s recently chosen legislators on October 12th must have been unnerving. Even by the standards of Hong Kong’s far more querulous politics, the scene was striking. One legislator (pictured) draped himself in a banner saying “Hong Kong is not China” and crossed his fingers as he delivered the oath, which includes words that make clear the territory is part of it. Two others pronounced China in a derogatory way used by Japanese in imperial days. During the chaotic ceremony, the three were declared unqualified to take up their posts. Hong Kong’s legislature has entered a rocky new relationship with the central government that will fuel political tension in the territory.

The authorities in Beijing knew that such displays were likely. In elections for the Legislative Council (usually called Legco) that were held on September 4th, six people gained seats in the 70-member body who belong to a new political force known as “localists”. They say Hong Kong people should be allowed to decide what sort of relationship the territory has with China (they had no say in the matter when Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997). As the banner sported during the swearing-in suggested, some localists are sympathetic with the idea of independence. A handful of the newly elected legislators said they would reflect this during the ceremony, either by adjusting the words of the oath or through other actions.

On the eve of the swearing-in, Hong Kong’s government (which sticks closely to the Communist Party’s line on such matters) issued an unprecedented warning that failure to take the oath in “a manner or form” consistent with the law would result in disqualification. It asked legislators to behave in an “orderly” way at the ceremony to allow Legco business to “commence without delay”.

As they mean to go on

With 40 seats in the new legislature, government supporters have a majority (helped by a voting system that skews the outcome in favour of pro-establishment politicians; see article). But members of the pro-democracy minority, including the radical localists, clearly paid little heed to the last-minute attempt to keep them in line. One of them, Raymond Chan, tore up a copy of the warning before reading his oath in the harbour-front Legco building. The government, he said, had no right to interfere in Legco’s affairs.

Despite his gesture, Mr Chan’s oath was accepted by the clerk. Others, too, managed to get away with making anti-government statements before or after their oaths. One called for universal suffrage. Another recalled the Umbrella Movement of 2014, when thousands of Hong Kong residents blocked streets in busy commercial areas for 11 weeks to press their demands for full democracy in the territory (China’s parliament had ruled that the public could choose Hong Kong’s leader, but only from among candidates vetted by a committee packed with the party’s supporters). “We will put up resistance. We are back,” he said, jabbing his fist in the air. Two of those who failed to pass muster were localists. One was Sixtus Leung, the legislator who crossed his fingers. Another was Yau Wai-ching, who, like Mr Leung, began her oath by swearing allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation”. Also disqualified was Edward Yiu, who swore in his oath to “fight for genuine universal suffrage”.

It is not yet clear whether the three politicians will be barred permanently from taking up their seats. They were, however, excluded from the first item of business: electing Legco’s president. The winner was a pro-government candidate, Andrew Leung, but only after a stormy session in which legislators raised questions about his nationality and right to residency abroad (he has held British citizenship, but says he has given it up). Pro-democracy members tore up their ballots and left the chamber in protest.

The government in Beijing made its views clear in editorials that were published the day before the ceremony in newspapers in Hong Kong that it controls: Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao. Both warned that if court battles ensue between disbarred legislators and the government, and the courts cannot decide whether their oaths meet the requirements of Hong Kong’s constitution, then China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, will adjudicate. Such an intervention would create a furore in Hong Kong, which prides itself on the independence of its judiciary.

It may also play into the hands of the localists, who took 19% of the vote in September’s elections—largely thanks to support from young people worried by what they see as the mainland’s growing control over the territory. Localism barely existed as a political force until the Umbrella Movement ended, having failed to extract any promises of full democracy.

Hong Kong’s courts will soon be grappling with other politically sensitive cases involving several people who were barred from standing in the recent elections because of their pro-independence views. At least one such challenge has already been filed. But the editorial in Ta Kung Pao said that no one should “underestimate the resolve and confidence of the central [authorities] in eliminating separatism”. The stage is set for growing antagonism between the party and the territory’s increasingly feisty politicians.