HONG KONG - Hong Kong's democracy supporters are riled after the government blocked a 21-year-old founding member of a young political party from an upcoming election, in what activists see as the latest effort to muzzle opposition in the Chinese territory.
In a letter to Agnes Chow, a prominent figure in several political causes, a city elections officer took issue with the platform of her party, Demosisto, to "promote self-determination" and democracy. As a party member, the letter says, she clearly does not intend to uphold the city's constitution.
Pro-democracy lawmakers and legal scholars said Chow's disqualification smacked of political screening, not a fair, legal or unbiased administrative decision.
About 2,000 people gathered on a chilly Sunday afternoon at the city's government center to decry the decision. "If we don't fight for our rights, they will seize every right from us, until we become bare, having nothing at all," former lawmaker Margaret Ng, a lawyer, told the spectators, who roared along. "We will fight in the courts, we will fight in Hong Kong, we will fight around the world!"
During the rally, Chow mentioned that her fellow party members have been physically beaten, stripped of their elective offices and imprisoned. "When the regime does this, the target is not just me, or democrats, but all Hong Kongers," she said. "This disqualification is to say to all Hong Kongers … we can only choose whom the regime accepts."
A leader of Chow's party said Monday that the party was seeking legal advice.
The government issued a statement late Monday defending the decision of the elections officer.
"The Returning Officers solely make independent decisions on whether a candidate complies with and meets the requirements as stipulated in the Ordinance, and whether legal advice shall be sought," the city's Electoral Affairs Commission said in a prepared statement. "The EAC will, as in the past, ensure that the Legislative Council by-election is conducted in an open, honest and fair manner."
Carrie Lam, the city's new chief executive, said this weekend that "democratic self-determination, Hong Kong independence or regional autonomy do not comply with the requirement of the Basic Law and deviate from the policy of one country, two systems."
Pro-democracy activists said they were unnerved that another member of their movement, former lawmaker Edward Yiu, was grilled about his political beliefs. Yiu and three other members were disqualified by a judge last year after they altered their official oaths at their induction.
The court's ruling leaned heavily on a 2016 decree from Beijing's National People's Congress Standing Committee, which decided that oaths could not deviate from the official text.
A letter from a Hong Kong elections officer asked Yiu whether he was sincere, whether he accepted Beijing's interpretation, and what he meant when he commented about "more autonomy for Hong Kongers."
Several people who attended the rally Sunday said they were angry that Yiu was asked whether, by attending a conference last year in Taipei, he agreed with the views of the New Power Party of Taiwan, whose members favor independence from China. Advocating secession or separatism are serious crimes in China. Yiu replied to the elections official that he does not judge the platforms of other organizations when attending a conference and he has been allowed to run.
Eric Cheung, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said the government's screening methods smacked of "political censorship" and were being applied arbitrarily.
The Hong Kong government's justification comes straight from Beijing and the 2016 order. The city's constitution, called the Basic Law, demands that elected officials swear to uphold the document's provisions. Now candidates, as a precondition for running, are being judged by those standards as well, Cheung said. The person deciding on each candidate's suitability is a bureaucrat whose office provides no recourse for the decision, he said.
In two years the government has shifted from criticizing young people who advocated independence to declaring that such talk is illegal and to insisting that promoting self-determination violates the constitution.
"You can see the chilling affect of government action," Cheung said. "In the end you don't know how far the government will draw the line."
Hong Kong's 20-year-old constitution promises "universal suffrage" in accordance with "democratic procedures." Yet China has delayed approving a system allowing for the direct election of the territory's chief executive.
Those delays have agitated a new generation that found its voice during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. The 79-day sit-in for greater voting power failed to win over Beijing and unleashed more radical parties and actions, which drew harsh political and legal repercussions.
Chow's party, Demosisto, was founded in 2016 on the belief that Hong Kong people should choose their government in 2047, when the current governing agreement with Beijing ends.
In 2016, two young men who advocated independence, Andy Chan Ho-tin and Edward Leung, were blocked from running for the city's legislature. Even though Leung swore on a form, suddenly introduced then, to uphold the city's constitution, the city's election official said she "did not believe" him. Chan did not sign and was barred. He appealed to the courts and has awaited a ruling since May.