Electoral officials on Wednesday gave the green light to the candidate put forward by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp to replace activist Agnes Chow Ting in the March 11 by-election.
Au Nok-hin, a southern district councillor, had submitted nominations for his candidacy on Saturday as part of a backup plan by the city’s political opposition after officials rejected Chow last week on the grounds that her party, Demosisto, had called for “self-determination” for Hong Kong.
That aim was deemed incompatible with electoral rules introduced to curb advocacy of the city breaking away from Chinese rule.
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But as they confirmed Au as a candidate, election authorities quashed another young activist’s bid to contest the New Territories East seat, on the grounds that he had expressed “apparent reluctance” to denounce his earlier stance of supporting Hong Kong independence.
In a letter sent to Ventus Lau Wing-hong on Wednesday, Amy Chan Yuen-man, the returning officer for the constituency, said she was not satisfied that he had ditched his previous position, even though he had earlier made a declaration saying so.
Chan cited a number of statements Lau posted on Facebook in 2016 – where he reiterated his support for Hong Kong independence – as well as a statement made in December where he made a U-turn.
Both Lau and legal scholars slammed the decision, as they argued the government should not trawl through what a hopeful had said in the past in deciding if they were eligible candidates.
On Wednesday Au received confirmation of his candidacy in the Hong Kong Island constituency.
He responded with a statement that criticised the government for creating “invisible pressure [among nominees] so as to spread fear and bring self-censorship.”
He said he would do his best to “strengthen the power of the legislature for democracy and the rule of law”.
Earlier, the same reasons cited for Chow’s rejection had raised concerns about Au’s eligibility. He had previously contributed an article to a project by a group of liberal academics and pro-democracy district councillors titled “Discourse on Reforming Hong Kong”.
In it Au urged all the city’s pan-democratic groups to join hands to defend Hong Kong as it “goes through a long period of darkness”.
The project and a book it spawned were viewed by the city’s pro-Beijing camp and a mainland Chinese scholar as displaying pro-independence tendencies.
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However, Au said he never mentioned independence in the article.
Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association who also sits on a council of advisers to Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, said he could not see how Au could be disqualified as his case was different from Chow’s.
A member of the Democratic Party since 2009, Au, 30, quit the group last year “to pursue his own political beliefs”. He had been seen as a promising young upstart for Hong Kong’s largest opposition party and since 2011 had served as a southern district councillor.
On Wednesday morning, before his candidacy had been approved, Au took part in the first televised debate between candidates for the Hong Kong Island seat. While he acknowledged his candidacy had yet to be confirmed, he pledged to fight to protect procedural justice if elected.
“Hong Kong’s success has rested on the excellent rule of law and a functional legal system,” he said in his opening statement.
He lamented that illegal additions to the home of justice minister Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah had been “tolerated”, while young people were meanwhile “disqualified from elections without any say”.
“Let us fight together to safeguard procedural justice,” he said.
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Au will face off against fellow southern district councillor Judy Chan Ka-pui from the pro-establishment New People’s Party, as well as company director Edward Yum Liang-hsien, an independent candidate, information technology professional Ng Dick-hay and retired dental surgeon Johnny Ma Kam-chuen.
The March 11 by-election is being held to fill four of six seats in the Legislative Council left vacant by pro-democracy lawmakers removed for improper oaths of office. Two of those ousted legislators are appealing against the court decision to remove them.
Edward Yiu Chung-yim, one of the six, was given a last-minute green light on Monday to join the by-election for the Kowloon West constituency.