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News analysis

A tool to ban separatists from Hong Kong polls

Controversial rule requires candidates to declare city part of China

The dust has settled and, on the surface, it looks like Beijing has managed to block separatists from gaining a foothold in Hong Kong's legislature with a controversial new rule.

At least six candidates have been banned from the Sept 4 Legislative Council (Legco) race, which this year required candidates to sign a form declaring the city an "inalienable part" of China.

The Electoral Affairs Commission made a surpriseannouncement of the new rule just two days before nominations began.

Yet, it did not seem to have stuck to the regulation - 42 pro-democracy and localist candidates had their nominations validated despite not signing the new form, while a few who had signed it were barred from running.

Many believe the new rule was an order from Beijing, which wanted to bar separatists from getting into Legco and gaining control. The pro-establishment camps need to win two-thirds of the seats if Beijing is to wield power over Legco. Only those who uphold the Basic Law are allowed to run as a Legco member. This mini-Constitution under the "one country, two systems" framework states that there is only one China.

By that reasoning, officals loyal to Beijing have shut out Mr Edward Leung Tin Kei, Hong Kong's most high-profile pro-independence political advocate. Despite bowing to the new rule, Mr Leung's nomination was declared invalid on Tuesday.

The 25-year-old is said to have stood a high chance of winning a seat in next month's polls after he managed to gain 66,000 votes, or 15.4 per cent of the vote, in a February by-election in the New Territories.

The reason given by the returning officer was that she did not believe that the activist had "genuinely changed his previous stance for independence". The controversial decision to ban Mr Leung was later backed by the city's Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen, who told reporters that Legco was conceived under the Basic Law and only those who uphold it are allowed to be Legco members.

Angry that Mr Leung was barred from the race, a group of pan-democrats and localists stormed the stage during a briefing session by the commission for candidates on Tuesday. Localist candidate Nathan Law told The Straits Times he protested because he felt the need to "defend their (pro-independence candidates') right to run (in the election)".

"That's the precious thing about Hong Kong. We determine the candidacy by our system, not by someone else and their political stand," said the 23-year-old, who co-founded localist party Demosisto.

Mr Law, who is running for a seat in Hong Kong Island, did not sign the new form but had his candidacy validated. He said it is because he does not promote independence for Hong Kong, but he is "fighting for the future of Hong Kong and for Hong Kong people to have the right of self-determination".

By allowing Mr Law, often seen in the front line of protests, to run in the election, where has the central government drawn its line on the political leanings of Legco members?

Political analyst Johnny Lau said: "It depends on the possibility of (the candidate) winning the election by law. I think Beijing thinks there is a lesser chance of Law winning a seat, as compared with Leung.Law has not brazenly pushed for the independence of Hong Kong."

While some analysts said the new rule could help Beijing control the election results, others felt that pan-democrats - marginalised by the rise of the separatists - would be the biggest beneficiary of the controversy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2016, with the headline 'A tool to ban separatists from Hong Kong polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe