Political storm in Hong Kong as activist Agnes Chow banned from by-election over party’s call for city’s ‘self-determination’
Demosisto hopeful decries ‘political screening’ after her candidacy declared invalid by electoral authorities
Hong Kong election authorities sparked a political storm on Saturday by banning a pro-democracy activist with strong youth support from running in a Legislative Council by-election in March.
Agnes Chow Ting accused the government of “political screening” after her nomination as a candidate was ruled invalid by a returning officer from the Electoral Affairs Commission on the grounds that her party, Demosisto, had called for “self-determination” for the city, rendering her ineligible under rules to curb independence advocacy.
While opposition politicians cried foul and some legal experts expressed reservations about the justification for such a drastic step, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor insisted it had been done by the book. “Any suggestion of ‘Hong Kong independence’, ‘self-determination’, independence as a choice, or self-autonomy, is not in line with Basic Law requirements, and deviates from the important principle of ‘one country two systems’,” she said, referring to the city’s mini-constitution.
The chief executive added that her government would not violate laws by intervening, even though she was trying to improve relations with the legislature and heal wounds in a divided society.
Chow, 21, was seeking to become the city’s youngest ever lawmaker by contesting the Hong Kong Island constituency seat vacated by Demosisto chairman Nathan Law Kwun-chung when he was disqualified last year for an improper oath of office.
“It is obviously a political decision and political screening, and the government is trying to shirk responsibility [by passing it on] to the returning officer, who should be only in charge of executive procedures,” Chow said. “We can see that Hong Kong is not ruled by law or [governed by] the rule of law, but only ruled by the Beijing government.”
While Law himself was not disqualified from contesting the 2016 Legco elections on the same grounds as Chow, returning officer Anne Teng argued that each case must be considered on its own merits. She said she had taken into consideration developments such as Beijing’s interpretation of the mini-constitution that made improper oath-taking and failure to accept Hong Kong as an inalienable part of China punishable by disqualification.
That interpretation of the Basic Law by China’s top legislative body led to six pro-democracy lawmakers, including Law and Edward Yiu Chung-yim – who has now signed up for the by-election for the Kowloon West constituency – being disqualified for failing to take their oaths of office properly.
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Yiu, whose candidacy has not been approved and is also in danger of being rejected, accused the government of depriving Hongkongers of their right to stand for election. He was contacted on Friday by a returning officer who quizzed him on his position on self-determination.
Demosisto was co-founded by student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung, who made a name for himself during the 2014 Occupy protests. One plank of the young party’s platform has been to call for a citywide referendum on its political future, including the option of independence from China.
“The government did not only disqualify Chow, but all members of Demosisto, and even the entire younger generation,” Wong said. “I am not certain how many young comrades can stand as candidates in future.
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“Two years ago, only nominees promoting independence were banned. Now, people advocating ‘self-determination’ are permanently banned from running. No one knows if Beijing will redraw the red line so that all pan-democrats who oppose the legislation of Article 23 will be banned as well.”
Article 23 of the Basic Law requires Hong Kong to enact national security legislation, which is a highly contentious issue because of concerns about the impact on rights and freedoms in the city.
The returning officer’s ruling stated that the doctrine of “democratic self-determination”, as promoted by Demosisto, was inconsistent with the one country, two systems principle enshrined and implemented under the Basic Law.
It noted that Chow, a founding member of Demosisto, had declared her political affiliation with the party in her nomination form, showing that she continued to subscribe to the doctrine.
Michael Davis, a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong, warned that Chow’s disqualification was wrong and the government was on a “slippery slope”, while former university law dean Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun said there was no legal basis for such a move.
Basic Law Committee member Albert Chen Hung-yee said election rules were not clear on whether returning officers had the power to disqualify candidates based on their political views.
However, pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun argued that calls for self-determination had crossed Beijing’s bottom line and Hongkongers should accept that there would be no compromise on the issue of autonomy.
The opposition camp is now urging people to voice their concerns by joining a mass protest planned for Sunday at government headquarters.
The March 11 by-election will fill seats vacated by four disqualified opposition lawmakers – Yiu, Law, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang. Two others who were similarly disqualified, Leung Kwok-hung and Lau Siu-lai, are still appealing against the court decision that stripped them of their seats.
Additional reporting by Emily Tsang