Candidates wishing to run for local district council elections in Hong Kong could now be faced with similar vetting procedures to those used to bar allegedly pro-independence candidates from standing in elections to the city's legislature, a pro-Beijing newspaper reported.
Legal opinions in Hong Kong indicate that the candidacy requirements for district council elections should be the same as those set for the Legislative Council (LegCo), the Sing Tao Daily News reported on Wednesday.
Prospective candidates who don't sign a letter pledging allegiance to the Hong Kong government and the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, or who are believed to support independence or "democratic autonomy" for the former British colony will similarly be prevented from standing, the paper said.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Au Nok-hin said the move would be a significant step backwards for the fundamental rights of citizens in Hong Kong to take part in elections.
"There have already been enough threats to our political rights in Hong Kong, as we all saw with the LegCo by-election, where a candidate could be disqualified on the decision of an official," Au said.
In March, former 2014 student protest leader Agnes Chow, now a member of the fledgling political party Demosisto, was disqualified from running in a LegCo by-election, because her political views were judged to be pro-independence.
Chow has since launched a legal challenge to her disqualification.
The barring of certain candidates because of their political views sparked widespread criticism among barristers, rights groups, and politicians, as well as among former British and Hong Kong officials, who said the move was a blow to democracy and freedom of expression in the former British colony.
But an extension of the ban to include calls for a democratic China would make it much harder for pro-democracy politicians and rights activists who have made the demand in the past to stand for election, regardless of their views on independence.
Au said that if such criteria are extended to district council elections, pro-democracy candidates will be locked out of both levels of Hong Kong politics.
"If the Hong Kong government really is moving the goalposts and making the criteria for candidacy narrower and narrower, then the total exclusion of political parties such as Demosisto from Hong Kong politics isn't out of the question," he said.
Former 2014 Umbrella Movement leader Joshua Wong, currently secretary general of Demosisto, said it was unnecessary to exclude such candidates from district-level politics.
"The scope of work of the district councils is a far cry from the debate about sovereignty and constitutional matters," Wong said, adding that foreign nationals aren't currently excluded from election to district councils.
"If foreign nationals — holders of U.K. or U.S. citizenship — can run for election to Hong Kong's district councils, then I can't see how a candidate can be debarred merely on the basis of their attitude to the Basic Law," he said.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Horace Cheung, who currently serves on chief executive Carrie Lam's cabinet, the Executive Council (ExCo), LegCo and the Central and Western District Council, said the requirements were reasonable.
"Actually, the government hasn't really implemented these requirements properly in the past; LegCo elections in recent years have relied mostly on legal precedent," Cheung said. "The district councils have just followed their lead."
"There hasn't been a tightening of the legal requirements; they are only now being correctly implemented," he said. "The district councils are a part of our political system, so if you want to be part of the establishment by standing for election, you will have to work within the framework of that establishment."
"This is pretty normal," Cheung said.
Agnes Chow filed an election petition in Hong Kong's High Court on Tuesday seeking to overturn the decision to ban her from March's by-election. The seat she planned to contest was eventually won by Au.
Chow told reporters she had filed the petition despite the court's rejections of similar petitions, because she hadn't been given the chance to defend herself to the returning officer who made the decision.
"She never asked me anything about my political views, nor about the views of the party I represent, Demosisto," Chow said on Tuesday. "So I think that there is a question of due process here."
"Demosisto has made it clear many times that it doesn't support independence for Hong Kong," she said.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.