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Hong Kong authorities have barred a pro-democracy lawmaker from running in a local election for "implicitly" supporting Hong Kong's independence from China, in what critics said was another instance of civil rights being eroded in the China-ruled city.
Eddie Chu, a former journalist who was democratically elected as one of Hong Kong's 70 legislators in a 2016 election, had planned to contest a separate grassroots poll to represent a village in the rural hinterland of the New Territories.
But an official with Hong Kong's Electoral Affairs Commission, Enoch Yuen, wrote to Chu on Sunday to disqualify his candidacy on the grounds that Chu had previously expressed support for "independence as an option for Hong Kong people to self-determine their future".
While Chu had written to Yuen stating he didn't support independence, she concluded that Chu's answers: "When viewed objectively, can be understood as implicitly confirming that he supports independence could be an option for Hong Kong people".
Chu said he might challenge this "ridiculous" decision in court, and that he had been stripped of a fundamental political right at a time when Beijing has tightened its grip on the city.
He pointed out that he was already an elected lawmaker with strong public backing, whose suitability for public office had never previously been questioned.
"They need to clearly tell the people of Hong Kong ... how they can, without any public consultation or legislative process, change the threshold of political screening."
Hong Kong, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 amid guarantees the territory would enjoy a high degree of autonomy and freedoms under a "one country, two systems" formula.
Over the past year, however, international concern has spread over a series of incidents that have further undermined confidence in Hong Kong's rights landscape, including the de facto expulsion of a British journalist after he hosted a speech by an independence activist at a press club.
The move against Chu adds to a list of other democrats who have been banned from contesting elections, fuelling fears of tightening political "red lines" by Beijing that could deny Hong Kong's disaffected young people any mainstream political careers beyond street protest.
In a statement, a government spokesman said late on Sunday that the government "agrees to and supports the decision" to ban Chu. It also denied there had been "any political censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech or deprivation of the right to stand for elections".
Hong Kong authorities say "self-determination", or seeking greater autonomy from China, violates the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which states that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.