HONG KONG — Authorities on Tuesday barred Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong from running in local elections, citing concerns that he does not respect China’s sovereignty over the territory — a step that threatens to inflame tensions after months of civil unrest.

The decision comes as pro-democracy candidates look poised to gain in the Nov. 24 vote from public fears over an erosion of freedoms in the Asian financial hub. Wong, a leader of 2014 pro-democracy protests, has criticized China’s tightening grip on the territory and advocated for stronger international action against the Hong Kong government and its allies in Beijing.

On Oct. 29, activist Joshua Wong confirmed the ban on the grounds that advocacy for Hong Kong's "self-determination" violates election law. (Reuters)

Explaining her decision in a letter Tuesday, Laura Aron, an official who manages elections, said there was a “consistent case” that Wong and his party believe “the independence of Hong Kong is an option” for the self-determination of its people. She added that it was “questionable whether Mr. Wong accepted the People’s Republic of China’s sovereignty” over Hong Kong. Aron had abruptly replaced another elections official, Dorothy Ma, who had been screening Wong’s candidacy but went on indefinite sick leave Thursday, according to the Electoral Affairs Commission.

Wong, the only candidate to be disqualified, has said he does not support Hong Kong’s independence, nor is it the official line of his party, Demosisto.

Excluding Wong was clearly a “politically driven” decision, said Kenneth Chan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who is running a project observing the local elections. 

“Obviously Joshua Wong's disqualification has a lot to do with his global profile as well as his activism in Hong Kong and overseas,” Chan said. “I believe that Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities now seek retaliation so that he would be kept outside the electoral systems.”

A statement from the Hong Kong government said Wong “cannot possibly comply” with the requirements of electoral law and accused him of promoting “self-determination,” or independence for Hong Kong. 

“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 statement added. 

Yet the decision was viewed as another setback for political freedoms in the former British colony, which over the past five months has been rocked by increasingly violent pro-democracy protests and an escalating police crackdown. The last-minute replacement of Ma, the official who was responsible for screening Wong’s candidacy, also fueled concerns about the integrity of the process. 

“Beijing has deprived me of my right to institutional participation permanently, but my commitment to the democracy movement will never be eroded,” Wong said in a news conference. “This disqualification is because my name is Joshua Wong. Unless I change my name, they will continue disqualifying me.”

Hong Kong’s government is not democratically elected, but the city holds a quasi-democratic process to choose councilors in 18 local districts who advise the government. Democratic elections are a key demand of the protest movement.

Public anger over deteriorating political rights in Hong Kong is expected to result in a backlash against pro-Beijing candidates in next month’s vote. A poll from the Chinese University of Hong Kong published by the Ming Pao newspaper on Thursday found 44.5 percent of people identified as pro-democracy, up from 27.9 percent in March. Only 6 percent of respondents supported the pro-Beijing camp.

Wong is not a central figure in the current unrest, which is largely leaderless. But he remains the most internationally recognized of the city’s democracy activists, having shot to fame as a leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement calling for universal suffrage. He was jailed three times for his role in the protests and was most recently released in June, before being arrested again in August

China has characterized Wong as a separatist, and President Xi Jinping has said any effort to challenge Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong is a red line for the ruling Communist Party. 

Agnes Chow, another democracy activist and a member of Wong’s party, was disqualified from running in elections in 2018. A Hong Kong court overturned the ban in September, ruling that there was a breach of procedural fairness.

“All this clearly contravenes the international standards of free and fair elections,” said Chan, the university professor. “The integrity of the entire electoral system is therefore undermined by such illiberal practices by the government.”

While barring Wong from next month’s contest, authorities permitted other pro-democracy figures to run, including some with more-radical views and others who have been disqualified from previous elections.

Still, Wong’s exclusion marks a snub for one of the Hong Kong’s best-known faces of protest. The 23-year-old has fashioned himself into an unofficial ambassador for the movement and has traveled to countries such as the United States and Germany to rally foreign support.

He has advocated passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bipartisan bill before the U.S. Congress that could impose sanctions or asset freezes on individuals judged to be restricting basic freedoms in the city. The legislation would mandate a review of the special status that the United States affords Hong Kong, under which the territory is treated as separate from mainland China.

The bill passed unanimously in the House and is being discussed in the Senate. It would need President Trump’s signature to become law.

The Chinese government has  described the bill as interference in China’s internal affairs and vowed to retaliate if it is enacted.

Timothy McLaughlin, Ryan Ho Kilpatrick and Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.