HONG KONG—More than 600,000 Hong Kong citizens cast ballots over the weekend in primary elections seen as a symbolic protest vote against the tough national security law imposed by the regime in Beijing, the city’s pro-democracy camp said July 12.
The unofficial poll will decide the strongest pro-democracy candidates to contest elections in September to Hong Kong’s legislature, known as the Legislative Council. The goal is to seize majority control for the first time from pro-Beijing rivals, by riding a wave of anti-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) sentiment stirred by the law, which critics say has gravely undermined Hong Kong’s freedoms.
While the primaries are only for pro-democracy candidates, the level of participation is seen as a guide to popular opinion in the city of 7.5 million people, a major financial hub.
“A high turnout will send a very strong signal to the international community, that we Hongkongers never give up,” said Sunny Cheung, 24, one of a batch of aspiring young pro-democracy advocates who are running in the primary and giving stump speeches.
“The primary election is our first time to let Beijing know Hongkongers never bow down to China. … We urge the world to put Hong Kong under the global spotlight,” pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said ahead of the opening of polling booths at noon local time on July 11.
Defying warnings from a senior Hong Kong official that the vote might fall foul of the national security law, residents young and old flocked to more than 250 polling stations across the city that were staffed by thousands of volunteers.
Long lines formed down streets, in residential estates and at businesses-turned-polling stations, with people casting an online ballot on their mobile phones after having their identities verified.
On the eve of the primaries, police searched the office of independent pollster Robert Chung, whose Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) helps organize the election, raising concerns among activists of interference in the poll.
Despite the threat, organizers said 592,000 people had voted online, and 21,000 had cast paper ballots at the end of two full days of polling—more than expected, and representing around a third of voters who backed pro-democracy candidates in an election last year.
“Even under the shadow of the national security law, there were still 600,000 people coming out,” said Au Nok-hin, an organizer who was a lawmaker from 2018 to 2019. “You can see the courage of the Hong Kong people in this … Hongkongers have created another miracle.”
The new law punishes what the Chinese regime describes broadly as secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, and allows mainland security agents to operate officially in Hong Kong for the first time.
Some pro-democracy activists fear that even with this tactical vote to maximize their chances, authorities will try to stop some candidates from running in September’s election.
“They can arrest or disqualify any candidate they don’t like under the national security law without a proper reason,” said Owen Chow, a young pro-democracy “localist” candidate.
At a time when Hong Kong authorities have barred public marches and rallies for months on end amid coronavirus social restrictions, and arrested individuals for shouting slogans and holding up blank sheets of paper, the vote is being seen as a crucial and rare window for populist expression.
“I can really feel that young people haven’t given up yet, even though we are facing a very depressing future,” said Prince Wong, 22, a candidate in the New Territories West district.
“It helps me become more determined to fight.”
By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret
Epoch Times staff contributed to this report.