HONG KONG — Moves by the government of Hong Kong to bar candidates from a coming legislative election over the issue of independence from China have raised worries in this semiautonomous city about the deterioration of political freedom and the potential for renewed conflict with Beijing.
Since Saturday, Hong Kong election officers have blocked at least five candidates from the balloting, on Sept. 4, for seats on the city’s Legislative Council over questions about whether they acknowledge the city as an “inalienable part” of China.
The disqualified candidates are mostly young people who became politically active during the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014, when demonstrators shut down several thoroughfares for more than two months to push for greater choice in elections for chief executive, the top political office in the city.
The protests failed to elicit any concessions from the government. But they helped fan a “localist” movement, as it is often called, of activists seeking to strengthen Hong Kong’s identity in the face of growing cultural, linguistic, and economic influence from mainland China.
Edward Leung, who said he learned he was barred as a candidate Tuesday, is a leader of the group Hong Kong Indigenous, which has proposed holding a referendum on whether Hong Kong should become independent.
“Hong Kong has become an authoritarian city,” Leung told reporters Tuesday. “As long as it’s under Chinese communist rule, Hong Kong will not achieve democracy.”
A meeting with candidates by election officials Tuesday evening was cut short amid protests by pro-democracy legislators and activists, who said the banning of the candidates amounted to political censorship.
Last month, Leung signed a declaration that he would uphold the Basic Law, the legal document governing Hong Kong and its relations with China’s central government. And he disavowed earlier pro-independence statements and deleted Facebook posts on the subject. But the election officer who handled his case questioned his sincerity.
“I cannot believe that Mr. Leung had genuinely recanted his previous advocacy and support for Hong Kong’s independence,” the officer, Ho Lai-sheung, said in a letter to Leung that he posted on Facebook.
Leung was charged with rioting after protests over the closing of street stalls in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong in February turned violent. Later that month, he finished third, with 15 percent of the vote, in a by-election for an open seat on the Legislative Council.
His ability to run in February but not in September has raised questions about why the government changed its position. Some legal scholars and politicians have criticized the decision to strike candidates from the ballot, calling it bureaucratic overreach and an infringement on political freedoms.
If a candidate is suspected of having made a false declaration, then that should be investigated by law enforcement, said Eric Cheung, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong.
“This is not rule of law, it is rule of man,” he said. “You should never give such power to a particular civil servant, then have the civil servant bypass the procedures.”
Last week, the High Court of Hong Kong declined to immediately rule on legal challenges to the electoral requirements, the public broadcaster RTHK reported.
Cheung said that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing could step in to offer a legal interpretation on the power of Hong Kong officials to bar candidates over pro-independence sentiment.
A similar move by the standing committee in 2014 to strictly limit who could run for chief executive set off the Umbrella Movement protests.
“This call for independence of Hong Kong really touches a nerve of the central government,” Cheung said. “They may prepare to stop it at all costs.”
Zhang Xiaoming, chief representative in Hong Kong of the central government in Beijing, said in March that advocacy of independence for the city had “already far exceeded the category of free speech and touched the bottom line of ‘one country, two systems.’”
This week, another prominent political activist was criticized by the central government authorities, who accused him of working under US guidance to promote Hong Kong’s independence. The activist, Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 protests who has since formed a political party, was pictured in a video carried on the Weibo account of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the top prosecutor’s office.
The video warned that advocacy of democracy and independence movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the regions of Xinjiang and Tibet could lead China to sink to levels of instability seen in Iraq or Syria.
Wong responded that he had not advocated Hong Kong’s independence and had previously denied working on behalf of foreign governments.
“We condemn such false statements,” his party said on Twitter in response to the video.