Hong Kong, China -- A dozen Hong Kong democracy activists were disqualified on Thursday from standing in September's legislative elections, a move decried by candidates as the most pressing assault yet on Beijing's critics in the city.
The government confirmed 12 nominees had been barred in a statement, deepening the political crisis engulfing the finance hub.
Many of those disqualified took to social media to post the letters confirming they had been barred -- including Joshua Wong, one of the city's best known activists.
"Beijing shows a total disregard for the will of the Hongkongers, tramples upon the city's... autonomy and attempts to keep HK's legislature under its firm grip," Wong wrote in a tweet.
He described the move as "the biggest-ever crackdown" on the city's pro-democracy movement, saying authorities had disqualified "nearly all pro-democracy runners, from young progressive groups to traditional moderate parties".
Other prominent young activists like him who are staunchly critical of Beijing and were also disqualified included Gwyneth Ho, Lester Shum, Tiffany Yuen and Fergus Leung.
The Civic Party, one of the city's most prominent pro-democracy parties, said four of its members had been disqualified: Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki and Cheng Tat-hung.
Hong Kong is run by pro-Beijing appointees, but the city is due to hold elections in early September for the Legislative Council.
The 70-seat law-making body is deliberately weighted to return a pro-Beijing majority, with only half the seats elected by popular vote.
The rest are chosen by industry bodies and special interest groups who reliably vote for pro-Beijing figures.
But pro-democracy parties had been hoping to capitalize on seething resentment towards Beijing's rule after huge pro-democracy protests last year.
If they take all 35 electable seats, they could hold a majority for the first time and block legislation.
During local council elections last year -- the city's only full elections -- pro-democracy figures won 17 out of 18 districts.
However, election officials have been scrutinizing the political views of candidates to decide whether they can run for the legislature.
Hong Kong says only those who promise to uphold the city's mini-constitution and pledge allegiance to both the local government and China can run.
In its statement, Hong Kong's government gave a list of political views and actions it said breached those commitments.
They included promoting independence, soliciting intervention by foreign governments, and "expressing an objection in principle" to the new national security law Beijing imposed on the city last month.
It also said campaigning to block legislation by winning a majority in the legislature would be grounds for disqualification, as well as refusing to recognize China's sovereignty over Hong Kong.
The government said it would not rule out further disqualifications down the line.
"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.