Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong’s bid to run in the district council election next month has come under a cloud, with the government announcing a sudden change in the returning officer overseeing the area Wong wants to contest.

Wong said he was the only candidate out of more than 1,000 whose status was yet to be confirmed, and the draw to allot candidate numbers for ballot papers was held last night (Thursday October 24).

Wong, a high-profile activist from the Demosisto party, sought to run in the South Horizons West constituency in Southern District on Hong Kong Island. He submitted an application on October 4 but his nomination was neither confirmed nor denied by Thursday. The deadline for nominations ended on October 17.

Wong said he had been asked twice last week to explain his stance on independence for Hong Kong by returning officer Dorothy Ma but he had not heard back from Ma for more than a week.

‘Unprecedented’

“[This delay] is unexpected and unprecedented in Hong Kong’s election history and I noticed some strange moves by the government,” Wong said. He suspected Ma was ordered to take sick leave by Beijing or told by the liaison office to bar him from running.

Wong went to the Southern District Office on Thursday morning but was informed that Ma was not in the office. “Mrs Ma did not come to the office today [Thursday]. She is not in the office and we don’t know if she will return or not,” a worker told Wong.

Late on Thursday afternoon, the Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) said in a statement that Southern District returning officer Dorothy Ma was on sick leave until further notice.

Laura Aron, Yau Tsim Mong’s district officer would take over Ma’s role as returning officer for Southern District.

The EAC said they would postpone the draw for candidate numbers for the South Horizons West constituency. Judy Chan, from the New People’s Party, and Wong’s back-up candidate Kelvin Lam are also standing for this seat.

Wong protested at the briefing session held at the Asian World-Expo last night for candidates, but the event was adjourned 10 minutes after it got underway at 8pm.

Wong tried to climb onto the stage but was quickly held back by staff and later escorted away along with activist and former lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung. The meeting was eventually canceled.

District Election candidates make their voices heard at the Electoral Affairs Commission briefing. Photo: Facebook, Joshua Wong

The District Council elections are due to be held on November 24, with 452 seats up for grabs. But speculation has grown that the authorities may postpone or even cancel the elections if violent protests are expected on polling day.

Officials say they are working “full steam” for the polls to go ahead.

But a contingency plan prepared by the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau was submitted to lawmakers and it showed that the chief executive and the Electoral Affairs Commission can postpone or adjourn the elections or the vote counting if they consider that the ballots would be obstructed or disrupted by “rioting, open violence or any danger to public health or safety.”

A crisis management committee will be set up and chaired by EAC chairman Barnabas Fung Wah. It will be made up of all EAC members, the Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, plus members of relevant government units. The police may also be represented.

The contingency plan says if the polls are moved to another day, it should normally be the following Sunday. That would make December 1 the new polling date.

‘Unusual move’

Au Nok-hin, a pro-democracy lawmaker and Southern District Councillor for Lei Tung, said the developments in Wong’s case were unusual. If the returning officer was on leave, it should be the assistant returning officer who is the replacement, not someone seconded from another district. He asked if the move aimed to disqualify Wong and his right to run in the election, Ming Pao Daily reported.

Meanwhile, Regina Ip, chairperson of the New People’s Party, conceded that the government’s move had led to discontent from some voters in the district, but she said her party’s candidate, Judy Chan, was confident about competing with Wong.

The EAC said returning officers determine whether a candidate’s nomination is valid or not according to requirements under the law.

In 2016, returning officers disqualified a number of candidates, including jailed local activist Edward Leung Tin-kei and Andy Chan Ho-tin, founder of the outlawed Hong Kong National Party, on grounds that they would not uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR.

In 2018, Agnes Chow, another member of Demosisto, was barred from running in a Legislative Council by-election because of allegations she unlawfully advocated self-determination. But the High Court overturned the decision to ban Chow, saying last month that the decision lacked fairness.

Dr Ma Ngok, associate professor of the government and public administration department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in a RTHK program on Friday that returning officers were under great pressure when assessing if a nomination was valid or not.

Joshua Wong has a high international profile, so if the government disqualifies him and stops his bid to run in the election, countries in the West are likely to consider it manipulation by Beijing.