HONG KONG (Reuters) – About 600,000 Hong Kong citizens voted over the weekend in what the Chinese-ruled city opposition camp said was a symbolic vote of protest against a national security law strictly enforced directly by Beijing.
The unofficial poll will decide the strongest pro-democracy candidates to contest the September elections to the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Then they aim to seize majority control of pro-Beijing rivals for the first time by riding a wave of anti-China sentiment triggered by the law, which critics say has seriously undermined Hong Kong’s freedoms.
While the primaries are only for the opposition camp, the level of participation is seen as a guide to popular opinion in the city of 7.5 million people, a major financial center.
“High participation will send a very strong signal to the international community that Hong Kong people will never give up,” said Sunny Cheung, 24, one of a group of aspiring young Democrats who lobby and deliver speeches.
“And that we are still with the democratic field, we continue to support democracy and freedom.”
Defying warnings from a high-ranking Hong Kong official that voting could be against the national security law, young and old residents flocked to more than 250 voting centers in the city, attended by thousands of volunteers.
Long queues formed, with people voting on their mobile phones after verifying their identities.
Organizers said 582,000 people had voted at the end of two full days of voting, more than expected, and representing about a third of the voters who backed Democrats in an election last year.
“Even under the shadow of national security law, 600,000 people were still leaving,” said an organizer, Au Nok-hin. “You can see the courage of the Hong Kong people in this … Hong Kongers has created another miracle.”
The new law punishes what China broadly describes as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with life imprisonment, and allows mainland security agents to officially operate in Hong Kong for the first time.
Despite this tactical vote to maximize their chances, some pro-democracy activists fear that the authorities may still try to prevent some candidates from running in the September elections.
“They can arrest or disqualify any candidate they don’t like under national security law without adequate reason,” said Owen Chow, a young “localist” democratic candidate.
At a time when Hong Kong authorities banned public marches and protests for months amid social coronavirus restrictions, and arrested people for shouting slogans and holding blank sheets of paper, the vote was seen as a crucial and rare window for populist expression.
“I can really feel that the young people have not yet given up, even though we are facing a very depressing future,” said Prince Wong, 22, a candidate in the West District of New Territories.
“It helps me be more determined to fight.”
Written by James Pomfret; Editing by Catherine Evans