HONG KONG -- Joshua Wong, the face of Hong Kong's 2014 Umbrella Movement, on Tuesday was barred from running in upcoming district council elections because of his advocacy of "self-determination" for the city, authorities said.
The 23-year-old pro-democracy activist and founding member of the Demosisto political party was the only candidate rejected by election officials for next month's vote.
The government views advocacy of self-determination for Hong Kong as equivalent to support for independence, which it says disqualifies candidates running for political office. Wong this week said specifically that he opposes independence for Hong Kong.
"The decision to ban me from running for office is clearly politically driven," Wong said at a news conference. "The so-called reasons is judging subjectively on my intention to uphold Basic Law," he said, referring to Hong Kong's mini-constitution. "But everyone would know that the true reason is my identity, Joshua Wong, is the crime in their mind."
Wong said he is considering taking legal action against the decision by the returning officer, as officials in charge of elections are called, to disallow his candidacy.
He also threw his support behind Kelvin Lam, a former HSBC economist, who is running for election in Wong's district as a member of the Democratic Party in November.
A government spokesperson said in a statement that it agreed to and supports the returning officer's decision to bar Wong from running, and there is "no question of any political censorship and restriction of freedom of speech."
"The candidate cannot possibly comply with the requirements of the relevant electoral laws, since advocating or promoting 'self-determination' is contrary to the content of the declaration that the law requires a candidate to make to uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the HKSAR," the statement said, referring to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the territory's official name.
A returning officer in 2018 also banned Wong's fellow Demosisto party member Agnes Chow from running in by-elections for the Legislative Council -- the city's lawmaking body -- for similar reasons. But that decision was overturned by a High Court judge in September because Chow was not given a fair opportunity to respond.
Wong's disqualification came as the number of registered voters for the Nov. 24 elections reached a record high. Political observers expect the rising momentum for civil participation to shake up the longtime dominance of the pro-Beijing establishment in the district constituencies.
The city's district council elections have received much attention this year amid the ongoing anti-government protests, which are now in their fifth month.
Support for China-friendly politicians in Hong Kong has plunged during the protests, and experts think pro-democracy forces are poised for a major victory. Such an outcome would embarrass Beijing authorities, which have told mainlanders that the vast majority of people in Hong Kong oppose the demonstrations.
District councils select some members of Hong Kong's Election Committee, the body that selects the city's chief executive. November's election could impede Beijing's influence over Hong Kong.
Wong made a high-profile visit to Washington last month, calling on U.S. lawmakers to pass legislation requiring annual reviews of Hong Kong's special status that affords the city trade and economic privileges.
He and singer-activist Denise Ho were among the witnesses urging passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which the House of Representatives did on Oct. 15.
Wong became the most prominent and globally recognizable figure to emerge from the group of student leaders of the Occupy Central protests, also known as the Umbrella Movement, when he was just 17 years old.
He said on Tuesday that he believes Beijing has exerted strong political pressure on Hong Kong officials who decided his candidacy, because other pro-democracy activists were all qualified.
"Whether they lock me up in prison or censor me out from the ballot, my commitment for democracy movement in Hong Kong will never be eroded by Beijing or President Xi [Jinping]," Wong said.
Additional reporting by Dean Napolitano.