"Today," said pro-democracy legislator Fernando Cheung, "is definitely the darkest day in Hong Kong so far."
Cheung is among 15 lawmakers who announced they'll resign en masse on Thursday to protest the disqualification of four fellow pro-democracy legislators.
On Wednesday, Beijing's top lawmaking body, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, or NPCSC, empowered the Hong Kong government to bypass the local judiciary in order to ban any lawmakers deemed "unpatriotic" or considered to be conducting themselves in a manner that "endangers national security."
Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, then moved against four lawmakers -- Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-Ki and Kenneth Leung -- previously barred from running in the delayed Legislative Council elections that had been scheduled for September.
"We could not allow members of a Legislative Council who have been judged in accordance with the law that they could not fulfill the requirement and the prerequisite for serving on the Legislative Council to continue to operate in the Legislative Council," Lam told reporters.
"Neither the Basic Law nor local laws in Hong Kong allows such impeachments," Cheung told ABC News. "The decision of the NPCSC signifies that the Chinese Communist Party is willing to break laws and rules to eradicate the opposition. In doing so, the dictatorship will lose all the trust that is left of the Hong Kongers and the international community that there's rule of law in Hong Kong."
The four lawmakers, who initially were allowed to return for an extended year to bridge the gap until the next election, have long been targeted by Beijing and its allies. The four are viewed by the communists as disruptive to the lawmaking process and were accused of working with foreign powers to interfere in the affairs of Hong Kong after lobbying the United States to sanction certain officials for human rights abuses.
"If observing due process, protecting systems and functions, and fighting for democracy and human rights would lead to the consequences of being disqualified, it would be my honor," Kwok, whom Beijing criticized for delaying measures in Hong Kong's legislative chamber, said at a press conference.
By exiting the chamber, the 19 pan-democrats effectively leave the 70-seat legislature entirely to Beijing-friendly lawmakers, without any meaningful opposition voice. Their exodus also raises questions about how the democracy movement will move forward without any legitimate channels or democratic avenue for dissent.
Protests have more or less died down in Hong Kong because of pandemic restrictions on gatherings and the deterring effects of the national security law, which was directly imposed by Beijing in June.
Until this week, the democratic camp had vowed to continue to be a voice inside the chamber, but Cheung explained that when the four members were disqualified they "lost the one-third of the votes needed to avoid impeachment initiatives."
"Even if we were to stay," Cheung explained, "we would be impeached one by one by the pro-establishment legislators."
Beijing's move is seen as the latest attempt to stifle Hong Kong's freedom, which was meant to be safeguarded when the city was handed back to Chinese rule from Britain in 1997. Critics have said Beijing is reneging on the "one country, two systems" arrangement that is supposed to be in place until 2047.
Authorities in China see the clamp down as necessary for "long-term stability" and to prevent additional unrest.
"Beijing is trying to clamp down on us in Hong Kong -- there's no 'high degree of autonomy,'" Emily Lau, a longtime democrat, told ABC News.
But Lau said the pro-democracy movement will find a way to push on, adding: "We will continue to fight on the street -- of course we will do it in a peaceful and non-violent way, but the struggle will go on."
Cheung, despite these latest events, shares in that optimism.
"I believe this is just the beginning," he said. "I hope the free world will continue to support Hong Kongers in our fight for liberty, democracy and our rule of law."
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect 15 lawmakers are resigning in protest of the four who were disqualified. The story initially said 19 lawmakers were resigning.