Photographer: Aaron Tam/AFP via Getty Images

Barring Radical Candidates Hurts Hong Kong Autonomy, Lawyers Say

  • Facebook posts get legislature hopeful disqualified from race
  • Government blocks contenders who back independence from China

Some Hong Kong lawyers are warning the government’s push to block radical candidates from seeking legislative seats could undermine the city’s promised autonomy from China.

Local election officials have turned down the candidacies of six would-be lawmakers on grounds they supported independence from China, a position the government deems illegal. The move raised questions about freedom of expression in the former British colony after the government cited a candidate’s social media posts and press statements, saying he was insincere in renouncing his pro-independence stance.

Demonstrators gather outside the central government complex in Hong Kong in Sept. 2014.

Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

The controversy comes a month before Hong Kong holds its first Legislative Council election since the 2014 Occupy protests, which brought global attention to the city’s democracy debate and fueled a nascent independence movement. Officials have pledged to squelch calls for full autonomy, even as concerns grow about China’s commitment to the "one country, two systems" framework that guarantees Hong Kong free speech, independent courts and a capitalist financial system.

"Legal matters should be left to the judiciary," said Edward Chan King-sang, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, who was among 30 legal figures who signed a letter protesting the decision to block the candidates. “To international investors, you need to think about how much trust do you want to put in the ‘one country, two systems’ promised by the central government. In the future, under this system, there may be more and more intervention.”

The move to bar candidates for the Sept. 4 vote comes after members of a pro-independence group were charged in connection with a Lunar New Year riot in the shopping district of Mong Kok that left more than 90 police officers injured. The Chinese government’s liaison to Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, later said the push for independence had “already far exceeded the category of free speech and touched the bottom line of ‘one country, two systems.’" 

Last month, the Electoral Affairs Commission announced it would require candidates to sign a form acknowledging Hong Kong as an inalienable part of China, as established in the city’s Basic Law. The commission followed up with some candidates who signed the form, scouring their past public statements for inconsistencies.

An election officer cited Facebook posts and newspaper articles as grounds Tuesday for disqualifying Edward Leung, of the “localist” group Hong Kong Indigenous, as a candidate in the New Territories East district. “I can’t accept that Mr. Leung has genuinely changed his past advocacy and stance in support of Hong Kong independence,” Cora Ho, the election officer, wrote.

Edward Leung

Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Leung was allowed to run in a special election in February, securing 15 percent of the vote and demonstrating growing support for the radicals. Just days before, he had been charged with rioting in connection with the Mong Kok melee.

“The EAC demonstrated explicit political censorship and a thought review of candidates by the authorities,” Hong Kong Indigenous said in a statement. “However, the EAC’s only function is coordinating election affairs. They have no power and legal basis to censor candidates’ political stance.”

The Department of Justice issued a statement Tuesday supporting the EAC, saying “the power and duty to decide the validity of nominations rest with the returning officers.” Alvin Hui, a senior information officer at the Commission, said on Friday the decision to approve or disqualify a candidate was in the hands of the relevant returning officer and the EAC would not comment further.

However, Chan and 29 other legal sector members who sit on the committee that choose the city’s chief executive questioned the decision. The group, including two lawmakers from the pro-democracy camp, argued there was no legal basis for making a subjective political assessment of a candidate’s validity.

“This has a negative impact on the long term stability of Hong Kong,” they said in their joint statement. “Arbitrary and unlawful exercise of powers by government officials without following any due process are most damaging to the rule of law in Hong Kong.”

Last week, Hong Kong’s High Court declined to immediately review legal challenges to the requirement that candidates sign the acknowledgment forms. Justice Thomas Au Hing-cheung said there was no urgency to consider the applications before the candidate nomination window closed.

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