Hundreds of thousands of people in Hong Kong queued to cast ballots over the weekend in what the city’s opposition politicians described as a symbolic protest vote against tough national security laws directly imposed by Beijing.
The unofficial poll will decide the strongest pro-democracy candidates to contest Legislative Council elections in September, when they aim to ride a wave of anti-China sentiment stirred by the law to seize control for the first time from pro-Beijing rivals.
While the primaries are only for the opposition camp, observers were watching closely for the turnout as a barometer of broader opposition to the security law, which critics say will seriously undermine the city’s freedoms.
“A high turnout will send a very strong signal to the international community, that we Hong Kongers never give up,” said Sunny Cheung, 24, one of a batch of aspiring young democrats out lobbying and giving stump speeches.
“And that we still stand with the democratic camp, we still support democracy and freedom.”
Defying warnings from a senior Hong Kong official that those “organising, planning and participating” in the vote might breach the national security law, residents flocked to more than 250 polling stations across the city. Just hours before the primaries began, police raided the office of a polling company that was helping to organise the primaries.
Long queues 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.
Organisers said more than 600,000 people voted over the two days of primaries, most of them online but 21,000 through paper ballots.
“Even under the shadow of the national security law, there were still 600,000 people coming out,” said former legislator Au Nok-hin who helped organise the primaries. “You can see the courage of the Hong Kong people in this. Hong Kongers have created another miracle.”
The security law punishes what China describes broadly as secession, subversion, “terrorism” and collusion with foreign forces with sentences of as long as life in prison It also allows mainland security agents to operate officially in Hong Kong for the first time.
Late on Friday, police raided the office of the Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), claiming they were responding to reports PORI’s computers had been hacked, resulting in an unlawful leak of personal information. PORI president Robert Chung said the voting system was safe and its operation was legal and transparent.
Despite the tactical vote, some pro-democracy activists fear authorities will try to stop some candidates from running in September’s election.
'#HongKong people made history again': Over 600,000 vote in democrats' primaries as co-organiser hails 'miracle' turnout https://t.co/644S85Hl0g @chingrachelwong Photos: @appledaily_hk. pic.twitter.com/2foUKdviea
— Hong Kong Free Press HKFP (@hkfp) July 13, 2020
“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 democratic “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.
“It’s a proxy referendum against the national security law,” said Democratic Party legislator Eddie Chu outside a metro station.