- Popular slogan was the focus of letters sent by returning officer to at least four candidates
- Two other hopefuls also received letters asking for their political views ahead of nominations closing for the 452 district council seats on Thursday
A popular slogan of Hong Kong protesters calling for the city's "liberation" has come under the scrutiny of election officials demanding district council hopefuls explain their use of it, but all have insisted they were not advocating independence in citing the chant.
"Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times" was the focus of letters sent by the returning officer of the coming district council elections, as they asked at least four aspiring candidates what they meant by it when they posted the message on their social media accounts.
Two other hopefuls also received letters asking for their political views ahead of nominations closing for the 452 district council seats on Thursday. Candidates have to obtain a certificate of qualification to run for the polls due to be held on November 24.
Since 2016, authorities have barred 10 candidates in various elections, including the Legislative Council polls, on the grounds that they advocated independence or self-determination, a red line that contravened the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
With the letters asking candidates of the coming elections to explain their stance on independence, political scientists warned that another wave of disqualifications would only escalate the social unrest that has plagued the city since early June.
The four " including former student leader Tommy Cheung Sau-yin " who were asked about the slogan had to respond to the returning officer by Tuesday evening.
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"What I meant was to restore the old Hong Kong where citizens enjoy different kinds of freedoms … with election runners not being deprived of their rights because of their political views and returning officers resuming their professionalism without political interference," Cheung, who has signed up to run in Yuen Long district, wrote in his response.
"The word 'revolution' should not be interpreted as bloody acts which aim for overthrowing a regime but referring to a mega change in structure and thinking, like the industrial revolution and technological revolution."
Cheung, one of the nine leaders convicted over the Occupy protests in 2014, stressed he had "no intention and interest" to push for independence.
Liu Qing, of the Democratic Party and running in Sha Tin, was also questioned over his stance on the slogan after he shared a poster which embedded the rallying cry promoting a human chain event on September 15 on his Facebook account.
"The purpose of the post was to notify residents about the event. The post was a speech of others and unrepresentative of my advocacy," Liu wrote, adding the party had never advocated independence.
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District councillor Billy Chan Shiu-yeung, of the group Community Sha Tin, also responded in a similar way, saying he understood the slogan merely as "recovering core values" of Hong Kong.
The slogan was first used by pro-independence activist Edward Leung Tin-kei, now serving a six-year jail term over his role in the 2016 Mong Kok riot. He used it as his election slogan that year.
It has become the dominant rallying cry of the months-long unrest, which morphed from opposition to the now-withdrawn extradition bill to an anti-government movement.
At a press conference in August, leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said that in calling for a revolution to liberate Hong Kong, protesters effectively wanted to "challenge national sovereignty, threaten 'one country, two systems', and destroy the city's prosperity and stability".
Legal academic Eric Cheung Tat-ming, of the University of Hong Kong, said the slogan was open to different interpretations.
"I do not think there is sufficient legal basis for the returning officer to ban anyone from running as long as they say it does not refer to independence," Cheung said. "But I hope the government will stop taking away voters' election rights and allow us to pick our own choices. It should not conduct any political screening."
Meanwhile, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung, who plans to run in Southern district, was also questioned by returning officers on whether he was running on behalf of his party Demosisto and if he supported the notion of self-determination for Hong Kong.
In 2018, Wong's party colleague Agnes Chow Ting was barred from running in a Legco by-election on the grounds that Demosisto advocated self-determination. But the election ban was overturned by the court last month, as the judge said the returning officer had failed to offer Chow an opportunity to respond.
In his response, Wong said he was running under the banner of Power of Democracy, a group coordinating the pro-democracy camp and not Demosisto, which was not fielding candidates.
"I do not advocate for Hong Kong's independence. My understanding of Demosisto's doctrine of self-determination was a non-binding one that does not contravene the constitutional and legal status (of Hong Kong)," he wrote.
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Wong, in his response to the returning officer on Tuesday, cited the ruling laid out by Mr Justice Anderson Chow Ka-ming, who said Agnes Chow may have explained that she only supported a watered-down version of self-determination involving the use of a non-binding referendum to forge public opinion when formulating plans for Hong Kong's future. Wong said he shared the same views regarding self-determination.
Henry Wong Pak-yu, aiming for a seat in Tin Shui Wai, was also questioned by officers on his previous public pro-independence statement. In his response, he declared his "resolute opposition" against the idea after "solemn self-reflection".
Political scientist Ma Ngok, of Chinese University, said it was hard to anticipate how the line would be drawn by returning officers. "The line is always up to the authorities, without any objective standards," he said.
He warned that any disqualification would fuel the ongoing political crisis, as he said much of the public unhappiness over the extradition bill was rooted in a Legislative Council that was not truly representative of the people's will with legally elected lawmakers booted out.
With the protests showing no sign of ending, speculation had grown the government could postpone the elections. On Tuesday, Lam said the government remained committed to holding the polls despite "more than 150" offices of pro-Beijing politicians being vandalised.
Additional reporting by Jeffie Lam
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