Hong Kong authorities have disqualified 12 pro-democracy candidates from upcoming elections, deepening political tensions in the Chinese territory.
Opposition legislators had hoped to obtain a majority in the Legislative Council (LegCo) in September's poll after Beijing's imposition of a highly controversial national security law.
Among those barred are high-profile activists Joshua Wong and Lester Shum.
The government said the candidates were not fit to run for office.
It said they could not be considered to be abiding by the constitutional duty required of lawmakers if they:
- advocated for, or promoted, Hong Kong's independence
- solicited intervention by foreign governments in Hong Kong's affairs
- expressed "an objection in principle" to the imposition of the national security law by central authorities in Beijing
- expressed "an intention to exercise the functions of a LegCo Member by indiscriminately voting down" any legislative proposals introduced by the Hong Kong government, "so as to force the government to accede to certain political demands"
In its statement announcing the disqualifications, the government said the decision was taken in line with Hong Kong's mini-constitution - the Basic Law.
"There is no question of any political censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech or deprivation of the right to stand for elections as alleged by some members of the community," it said, adding that more disqualifications could not be ruled out.
Joshua Wong, who rose to prominence as a teenage activist during protests in 2014, said the decision showed "a total disregard for the will of Hongkongers" and "tramples upon the city's last pillar of vanishing autonomy".
[I was just disqualified from LegCo election, despite being the biggest winner in #Hkprimaries]— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷 (@joshuawongcf) July 30, 2020
1. Few minutes ago, I was just disqualified from running in the upcoming LegCo election in #Hongkong, even though I got the highest vote share in the primary, w/ 30000+ votes obtained pic.twitter.com/sC3XWbBlsq
The new national security law has been highly controversial in Hong Kong, a former British colony which is now part of China but was given unique freedoms in an agreement before the transfer of sovereignty.
The law was widely condemned by Western governments, but China says it is necessary to restore stability in the territory, which was hit by months of pro-democracy protests last year which often turned violent.
The opposition candidates disqualified on Thursday include four incumbent lawmakers, four district councillors - including Mr Shum - and activists Ventus Lau Wing-hong, Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam and Alvin Cheng Kam-mun, in addition to Mr Wong.
The Civic Party, one of the city's pro-democracy parties that had members among those barred, said the disqualifications "exploited the right of Hong Kong people to vote", Reuters news agency reports.
Its four disqualified members were Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki and Cheng Tat-hung.
A widely anticipated move
By Grace Tsoi, BBC World Service, Hong Kong
The mass disqualifications of pro-democracy candidates had been widely anticipated after young candidates were barred from the previous legislative poll in 2016. They came as a heavy blow after the pro-democracy camp held primaries in which more than 600,000 voted, just a little more than two weeks ago.
Many of the barred candidates are young and support more confrontational tactics to fight for their cause. But it came as a surprise that four candidates from the Civic Party, which was founded by a group of lawyers in 2006, were also banned. The party is considered a more moderate wing of the democratic movement.
There has been speculation that the government is planning to postpone the Legislative Council election by one year amid a new outbreak of coronavirus. Critics say the government wants to delay the election because the pro-Beijing camp faces a stunning defeat, as they did in last year's district council elections.
On the other hand, the government says candidates cannot perform the duties of lawmakers if they vote down any proposals and force the government to meet political demands after securing a majority. Then the next question is: will any opposition candidates be allowed to run in the future?
At a news conference in Hong Kong, Mr Kwok, a founding member of the Civic Party, said it was clear Beijing was trying to silence opposition.
"Today we are seeing the results of the relentless oppression that this regime is starting, not only just to take away the basic fundamental rights and freedom that was once enjoyed by all Hong Kong people under the Basic Law... but they are also trying to drive fear and oppression into our hearts and [in] this we must not let them succeed."
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemned the decision. "It is clear they [the opposition candidates] have been disqualified because of their political views, undermining the integrity of 'One Country, Two Systems' and the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Joint Declaration and Hong Kong's Basic Law," he said.
The UK's last colonial governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, said Beijing was carrying out "an outrageous political purge".
"The National Security law is being used to disenfranchise the majority of Hong Kong's citizens. It is obviously now illegal to believe in democracy... This is the sort of behaviour that you would expect in a police state," he said in a statement.
The office of Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong said it firmly supported the disqualifications and that those who were disqualified wanted to paralyse the government and subvert state power, Reuters reported.
Amid speculation the government could postpone the election due to coronavirus, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Wednesday Hong Kong was on the verge of a "large-scale outbreak" that could cause hospitals to "collapse".
What is LegCo?
The Legislative Council helps to make and amend Hong Kong's laws.
It is made up of 70 seats - but only 35 are directly voted for by the public.
Another 30 represent "functional constituencies" - these are voted for by smaller groups representing special interests, primarily businesses, banking and trade. Historically these sectors have been largely pro-Beijing.
The last five are made up of district councillors who are elected by the public.
This system, where only a proportion of councillors are chosen by the public, has been called undemocratic by critics, but supporters of the system say it helps avoid populism and protects Hong Kong's business interests.