HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong authorities disqualified prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong on Tuesday from standing in upcoming district elections, a move likely to sow discord among anti-government demonstrators as an illegal Halloween march looms.
Wong, who was 17 when he became the face of the 2014 student-led Umbrella Movement, has not been a leading figure in the latest five-month spate of largely leaderless protests in the Chinese-ruled city.
The bespectacled Wong, now 23, holds a high profile internationally, however, and described his disqualification - on the grounds that advocacy of Hong Kong’s self-determination violates electoral laws - as political censorship.
“The decision to ban me from running (for) office is clearly politically driven,” Wong said on Tuesday.
“The so-called ‘reasons’ is judging subjectively on my intention to uphold Basic Law. But everyone would know that the true reason is my identity, Joshua Wong.”
This year’s protests, which started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill, have evolved into calls for greater democracy. They have plunged the city into its biggest crisis in decades, taking a heavy toll on the economy and showing little sign of letting up.
They have also posed the biggest populist challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
Wong said he was the only person disqualified out of more than 1,100 candidates in district council elections set for Nov. 24.
Such votes have previously attracted little fanfare and been dominated by pro-Beijing candidates. But a summer of unrest has infused a new significance in the poll and prompted a record number of candidates and voters to register.
“It is questionable whether Mr Wong accepts the People’s Republic of China’s sovereignty over (Hong Kong) and whether he is of the view that independence and referendum would be options for Hong Kong,” the returning officer for Wong’s district, Laura Aron, said in a statement seen by Reuters.
Hong Kong’s government separately said one candidate was deemed invalid for contravening electoral laws that bar “advocating or promoting ‘self-determination’”. It did not identify Wong by name.
Wong has said he supports the idea of a non-binding referendum for people to have a say over Hong Kong’s future but that he is against independence, according to a post on his Facebook page on Saturday.
Taiwan’s ruling party said on Tuesday that it “deeply regretted” the decision to disqualify Wong and urged Hong Kong to offer “real universal suffrage”.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has been a vocal supporter of democracy in Hong Kong, a stance seen as bolstering her domestic support ahead of elections in January where she has taken the lead.
Self-ruled Taiwan is claimed by China as its own territory. Beijing has proposed to rule Taiwan under a “one country, two systems” formula similar to Hong Kong, guaranteeing certain freedoms.
In Washington, Democratic U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the action against Wong “another blow against rule of law in Hong Kong and the principle of “One Country, Two Systems.”
“The people of #HongKong should be able to choose their elected officials,” said Pelosi, who this month backed House legislation that would tighten U.S. scrutiny of Chinese rule in Hong Kong.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Wong’s disqualification followed another weekend of protests that descended into chaotic clashes with police.
Protesters are angry about what they view as increasing interference by Beijing in Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula intended to guarantee freedoms not seen on the mainland.
China denies meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up trouble.
Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday she expected the Asian financial hub to record negative economic growth this year, in part as a result of the unrest.
“Our current assessment is that the full year of 2019 will likely show negative growth, which means we won’t be able to achieve the already revised down positive growth of 0-1%,” Lam said. “The situation is very grim”.
With visitors deterred by months of violence, many small firms across the city have already closed or are struggling to turn a profit.
Lam’s gloomy forecast came two days after Financial Secretary Paul Chan said Hong Kong had slipped into a technical recession - meaning two successive quarters of contraction. That is expected to be confirmed by third-quarter GDP data on Thursday.
Beijing-backed Lam said the government would unveil measures to boost the economy once the unrest died down, without giving details.
Lam’s popularity is the lowest since she took office, and lower than any other chief executive in history, a poll released on Tuesday by Hong Kong Public Opinion Program showed. The telephone poll covered 1,038 residents in mid-October.
Reporting by Clare Jim, Donny Kwok, Farah Master, Noah Sin, Twinnie Siu and Felix Tam in Hong Kong, Yimou Lee in Taipei and Patricia Zengerle and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree, Tom Westbrook and John Geddie; Editing by Gareth Jones and Peter Cooney