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The changing face of Hong Kong politics

Hong Kong Indigenous member Edward Leung was disqualified from running in the city's Legislative Council elections on Aug. 2. (Photo by Jennifer Lo)

HONG KONG On the face of it, the two upcoming elections looked set to transform Hong Kong politics.

When nominations for the September legislature election closed last month, it seemed likely that several newcomers would end up replacing familiar faces. But the elimination of a handful of rising politicians -- mainly outspoken activists -- has taken many in Hong Kong by surprise.

Edward Leung of Hong Kong Indigenous, a 25-year-old member of the high-profile independence movement, is one of the latest to fall afoul of new measures preventing separatists from standing for the 70-seat Legislative Council. At least five other pro-independence activists, including Chan Ho-tin of the Hong Kong National Party, had their candidacies invalidated as of Aug. 3.

The saga began when a rule was introduced requiring candidates to sign a form declaring that Hong Kong is an "inalienable" part of China, or face disqualification. Many see the measure as an attempt to appease Beijing, which considers the separatists an imminent threat. Previously, candidates were only required to pledge allegiance to Hong Kong and local laws.

The U.K.'s 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule came with an agreement promising "a high degree of autonomy" for the territory, but fears have grown over Beijing's perceived interference in local matters.

Leung submitted the controversial form after being questioned by election officers about his stance and his failed attempt to secure an urgent court hearing challenging the legitimacy of the new rules. But the government determined that a pro-independence activist like Leung cannot possibly "fulfill his duties as a legislator."

The face of February's "Fishball Revolution," Leung rose to fame for his role in defending street food vendors and local interests in a series of violent clashes with police. He shocked political veterans when he won 15% of the vote in a by-election for a legislature seat earlier this year. "When dictatorship becomes a fact, what more we can do? Revolution is our duty," Leung said after his candidacy was rejected on Aug. 2.

An opinion poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Centre for Communication showed that 17% supported independence in 2047, when the "one-country, two systems" framework agreed to in 1997 expires.

CHANGE NONETHELESS The upcoming election will likely see the departure of a number of political heavyweights. Nearly a quarter of incumbent lawmakers are not expected to retain their seats. Among them are veterans of the Democratic Party including Albert Ho and Emily Lau, who will let younger party members run ahead of them on the candidate lists -- leaving them slim chances with a record 89 candidate lists and just 35 directly elected seats.

Other political groups emerging after the Umbrella Movement protests that brought Hong Kong to a standstill in 2014 are also hoping to cause a stir.

Demosisto's Nathan Law and Youngspiration's Yau Wai-ching had their candidacies confirmed without signing the new form. These "umbrella soldiers" advocate different agendas -- some want self-determination, while others call for full independence at some stage.

Meanwhile, two politicians have hinted at an interest in the top job -- casting uncertainty over the chief executive election next March.

Outgoing legislature president Jasper Tsang said he would run for the post if there were no one to challenge a potential bid for re-election from unpopular leader Leung Chun-ying. Tsang, a pro-Beijing heavyweight regarded as a tactful middleman between rival camps, expressed a wish to see "genuine competition" in the election.

Hong Kong's chief executive will be chosen by a 1,200-member circle, mostly comprised of the pro-Beijing elite, after the Umbrella Movement failed to win concessions from China on full universal suffrage.

While Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, in practice Hong Kong's number two, has been reticent about her stance in the election, her subordinate John Tsang, the financial secretary, has been more vocal about his intention to "contribute" to Hong Kong.

Calling the chief executive's role a "bad job," Tsang warned that whoever won would, as a Beijing appointee, never be immune from the same sea of criticism his or her predecessors had faced.

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