Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong was barred Tuesday from standing in upcoming local elections after months of huge and frequently violent protests in the city.
Wong, one of the most prominent figures in the otherwise leaderless movement, accused the government of "political screening" after an election officer ruled invalid his nomination for the November poll.
The 22-year-old was sent to prison earlier this year over the democracy protests he helped lead in 2014. He immediately joined the historic anti-government protests rocking the city upon his release in June.
Wong was the only candidate barred from standing in an election for district councils, which tackle regional issues. The election is the first to be held since the current mass protests started.
He accused the government Tuesday of censorship in disqualifying him.
"The decision to ban me from running for office was clearly politically driven," he told a press conference on Tuesday.
"The true reason is my identity, Joshua Wong, is the crime in their minds."
He also accused the election officer of misinterpreting his political ideology.
"This says that the disqualification was simply a hard order from Beijing, a political mission handed down from Beijing."
The election officer wrote in her reasoning that Wong's concept of self-determination does not rule out the independence of Hong Kong as an option, which she deemed inconsistent with the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution.
Wong and his party, Demosisto, have denied supporting independence for the city.
They advocate self-determination and a referendum for Hong Kong people to decide how they want to be governed.
Government denies censorship
Any talk of independence incenses Beijing as Chinese President Xi Jinping increasingly emphasises the importance of territorial integrity.
A Hong Kong government spokesman said Tuesday that the administration supported the decision, and denied any political censorship.
"There is no question of any political censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech or deprivation of the right to stand for elections as alleged by some members of the community."
"The candidate cannot possibly comply with the requirements of the relevant electoral laws," the spokesman added.
Hong Kong has been battered by nearly five months of pro-democracy protests which Beijing and its local leaders have taken a hard line against.
Millions have hit the streets, with hardcore activists clashing repeatedly with police in the biggest challenge to China's rule since the city's handover from Britain in 1997.
Wong is one of the best-known pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong today after becoming the poster child of the huge pro-democracy "Umbrella Movement" protests of 2014 that failed to win any concessions from Beijing.
The decision to disqualify Wong has sparked criticism that it could intensify the ongoing protests.
"When you keep rigging the only -- and lowest level -- elections on offer, you're going to make many in #HongKong... conclude that the only way to be heard is on the streets," Maya Wang, Senior China Researcher for Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter.
Hong Kong's pro-Beijing leader warned Tuesday that the city's economy could end the year in recession as the financial hub is battered by months of seething pro-democracy protests that her struggling administration has been unable to end.
She said the city's economic woes cannot be fixed unless there is an end to violence, but offered no political solution to stop the unrest.
The pro-democracy camp could secure 117 seats on the 1,200-strong committee that chooses the city's leader if they win a majority in the district council elections, which have no power to pass legally binding motions.
In 2016 and 2017, the city's courts ousted six pro-democracy lawmakers, including Demosisto member Nathan Law, for breaches of their swearing-in ceremony and oaths of allegiance, a move backed by Beijing.
Last year, Agnes Chow, another young pro-democracy leader from Wong's party, was barred from standing in by-elections because her party advocates self-determination for Hong Kong.