• The Star Staff

Hong Kong voters defy Beijing, endorsing protest leaders in primary

By Austin Ramzy, Elaine Yu and Tiffany May

Defying warnings from local officials that the Hong Kong opposition’s unofficial primary vote could be illegal under a sweeping new security law, hundreds of thousands of people chose avowedly pro-democracy candidates to run in citywide elections this year, results released Monday showed.

Early returns showed that the more than 600,000 people who had voted favored candidates who were prominent supporters of the months of demonstrations that have gripped the semiautonomous Chinese city. Their choices indicated a desire to see the goals of the protest movement pressed within the government itself but could lead to an intensifying confrontation with authorities, who could bar some from running.

“So many people came out to vote despite the threat that it may violate the national security law,” said Lester Shum, a 27-year-old activist and candidate who was among the front-runners Monday. “That means Hong Kong people have still not given up.”

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has been hobbled by mass arrests at protests and by the new security law, which bans vaguely defined crimes of secession, subversion and terrorism and is already working to mute dissent. The one remaining avenue of resisting Beijing’s tightening grip over the city, they say, is to capture a majority in the legislature in September.

The obstacles are enormous. Hong Kong’s electoral system has long been weighted heavily in favor of the establishment that is backed by the Chinese Communist Party. Pro-Beijing parties are far better funded than the opposition.

Now they must contend with the new, far-reaching national security law imposed by the central Chinese government that makes speaking out against authorities possibly criminal. Opposition candidates, whose calls for democratic freedoms could be deemed as hostile to China’s ruling Communist Party, say they fear that whoever has protested the law could be disqualified from running or jailed. Even if they did succeed in being elected, there was no guarantee that the party would let them govern.

Supporters of the democratic camp have been grappling with whether to rely on familiar, moderate politicians or to abandon them in favor of more confrontational candidates — and those disagreements have threatened to divide the vote.

The informal primary this past weekend to help determine who should run in September sought to avoid such a split. Among those in the lead were activists such as Joshua Wong, who led the large street demonstrations in 2014 for freer elections, and Ted Hui and Roy Kwong, young lawmakers who often tried to mediate between protesters and police during last year’s unrest.

“They are in favor of electing people who have a strong record in the protest movement so that they can continue the protests” within the legislative body, said Ma Ngok, an associate professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Those who have strong recognition in the protests stand out, irrespective of their parties.”

The turnout represented more than half of the opposition’s votes in 2016 and was several times higher than the organizers had expected. Voters went to polling stations set up on sidewalks as well as in unconventional venues such as a lingerie shop and a converted double-decker bus.

Just half of the 70 seats in the legislature represent geographical districts that are directly elected by voters. The other half are so-called functional constituencies, most chosen by corporate voting and more likely to go to establishment candidates. That tilted system has historically discouraged some Hong Kong residents from participating.

But in November, after months of fierce and at times violent anti-government protests, voters turned out in large numbers for an election of Hong Kong’s district councilors, a low-level office that previously drew little attention. More than 7 in 10 eligible voters cast ballots, compared to a previous high of 47% — and delivered a stunning victory for the pro-democracy camp, which swept 86% of the seats.

That victory shocked Beijing and emboldened protesters to set their eyes on the more ambitious target of elections for the Legislative Council, a far more powerful body. Their goal has taken on extra urgency as other displays of dissent have become increasingly perilous under the new security law.

Police now regularly ban marches, citing violence and coronavirus-prevention measures, and sweep up hundreds of demonstrators in mass arrests.

“To cast your vote, you do not need to risk your life,” Benny Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong and leading strategist for the opposition, said in June. “It is a form of protest that actually is risk-less, I would say. So why not? Why not use your vote to buy a chance?”

Gwyneth Ho, a 29-year-old former journalist who emerged as a front-runner in her district Monday, has urged pro-democracy supporters to keep fighting, no matter the odds.

“We all know, we do something not because it’s effective or because it’ll succeed,” she called out to commuters streaming past her outside a busy subway station on a recent Wednesday late last month. “It’s because we can’t give up on any front.”

If the pro-democracy candidates were able to capture a majority in the legislature, they could use their position to block the government’s agenda. Some have proposed vetoing the government’s budget, which could force the dissolution of the legislature. If a new legislature were also to block the budget, the chief executive would be forced to step down.

Erick Tsang, the constitutional affairs secretary, warned last week that the pro-democracy camp’s primary could potentially be considered subversion under the new national security law if its goal were to form a majority to block the Hong Kong government’s policies. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, repeated Tsang’s warning Monday night.

Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong was more strident, declaring in a statement late Monday that the primary was “nakedly illegal behavior” that caused “serious damage to the fairness and justice” of the legislative elections. It singled out Tai, the opposition strategist, for criticism, accusing him of working at the behest of unnamed forces.

“The goal of the Benny Tai gang and the opposition is to seize the power of governance in Hong Kong and deliberately stage the Hong Kong version of the ‘color revolution,’ ” the office said, referring to anti-communist uprisings China says are orchestrated by the West. “He was so openly manipulating the election. Whose instructions did he receive? Who gave him such confidence?”

The pro-democracy camp’s electoral push also displayed rifts within the opposition movement. A few candidates who champion more aggressive tactics refused to participate in the pro-democracy camp’s primary, arguing that voters should be able to choose from the full range of candidates in September. More moderate voices have argued that voters needed to be strategic rather than ideological, and should rally behind the candidates most likely to win.

A significant threat looms over all the pro-democracy camp’s plans: disqualification.

In the last legislative election, several candidates were barred from competing over questions of whether they acknowledged Beijing’s position that Hong Kong was an “inalienable part” of China. Six who won later lost their seats because they protested against China during their oaths of office. This year, many in the opposition fear that election officials will also bar candidates who have questioned the new security law.

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