HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong's government on Friday announced the names of candidates approved to run in the territory's most contentious Legislative Council elections since reverting to Chinese rule almost two decades ago, amid a dispute over people excluded on political grounds.
As many as nine candidates have been rejected because of their stance on the Chinese special administrative region's political future in what critics say is an ill omen for its democratic development. Three excluded candidates say they will appeal, although no ruling is expected before the Sept. 4 elections.
The rejections are seen as a sign of China's growing political interference in the financial hub, which enjoys its own legal system and far greater democratic freedoms than the Communist Party-run mainland.
The government said 289 candidates have been approved to run for the 70-seat body, half of which is elected from geographic districts and half from professional constituencies such as engineering, tourism and the arts. Twelve of those seats are being filled by candidates running uncontested.
Election officers warned candidates they must pledge to uphold Hong Kong's mini-constitution, including a newly added section saying the city is an "inalienable" part of China, and excluded those who refused. The rejected candidates, who hail from Hong Kong's marginal but growing independence, or "localist," movement, said they refused because the demand amounted to political screening.
Officers rejected the candidacy of one high-profile localist candidate, university student Edward Leung of the group Hong Kong Indigenous, even after he signed the pledge and renounced previous pro-independence statements.
Speaking to The Associated Press on Thursday, Leung characterized the imposition of the new pledge as both unnecessary and illegal.
"I think the political scene in Hong Kong is being manipulated completely by the Beijing authority," said Leung, 25, who became active in politics during monthslong and ultimately unsuccessful street protests in 2014 demanding the right to freely nominate candidates for the territory's chief executive.
Hong Kong people "need to recognize that the sovereignty of Hong Kong should always belong to them," he said.
Leung and other localist activists planned to hold a rally Friday night that could serve as a gauge of their public support.
The pro-independence movement is oriented toward the year 2047, when China's promise not to change Hong Kong's social, economic and legal systems for 50 years expires.
Despite a lack of substantial public support for the movement, China is determined to ensure there is no discussion of independence either during the campaign or within the council, said Joseph Cheng, a retired professor of political science formerly with the City University of Hong Kong. That could end up backfiring badly, he said.
"People in general see this as a very rough intervention in the election process," Cheng said. "Therefore this crackdown will generate even more resentment and more support for the cause of independence among young people."
Citing poll results showing more than 17 percent of Hong Kongers — about 1 million people — support independence after 2047, Leung said frustration would grow if that constituency has no one to speak for them in government.
"So what are you going to do with these 1 million people? Criminalize them? Put them into jail? You cannot," Leung said.
Bodeen reported from Beijing.