HONG KONG — Hong Kong residents voted Sunday in by-elections that give opposition supporters the chance to recapture lost ground in a contest measuring voters’ appetite for democracy in the semiautonomous Chinese city.
The vote pitted pro-Beijing loyalists against opposition candidates competing for four seats in the city’s semi-democratic legislature. They’re among six seats left empty when a group of lawmakers were expelled following a 2016 controversy over their oaths, which they used to defy China.
The ejected members included two advocating Hong Kong’s independence, something Chinese President Xi Jinping has called a “red line.”
In the vote’s main battleground, little-known activist Au Nok-hin, a neighborhood councilor, was competing against pro-Beijing rival Judy Chan. He was enlisted at the last moment after officials disqualified the pro-democracy camp’s marquee candidate, 21-year-old Agnes Chow, because she advocated for Hong Kongers to determine their own future.
“This election is not just a normal election; it is a battle between the pro-Beijing camp and the pro-democracy camp,” Chow said. It’s “also a very important choice for Hong Kong people for whether they want rule of law or rule by the Communist Party.”
Chow said Hong Kong’s younger generation hopes for democratic development. But that prospect looks increasingly distant after China’s rubber-stamp parliament voted Sunday to abolish presidential term limits, allowing Xi to stay in power indefinitely.
Chow had intended to stand for the seat vacated after the disqualification of Nathan Law, a fellow member of their Demosisto party who became Hong Kong’s youngest-ever lawmaker. The two were among a wave of young activists who emerged from the massive but inconclusive 2014 “Umbrella Movement” demonstrations against Beijing’s plans to restrict elections for Hong Kong’s top leader.
Under the “one country, two systems” framework, Beijing promised to let Hong Kong maintain wide autonomy and civil liberties following its 1997 handover from Britain. Fears are rising that China’s communist leaders are backtracking.
A handful of pro-democracy supporters protested Sunday outside the polling station where the city’s top leader, Carrie Lam, cast her ballot and some pro-Beijing supporters heckled noted democracy activist Joshua Wong outside a campaign stop. Voting otherwise went undisturbed for the election, which has attracted little attention — no opinion polls were conducted and there was no televised debate by the city’s largest broadcaster.
Some 2.1 million voters were eligible to cast ballots for three Legislative Council seats, which saw a turnout of around 15 percent by early afternoon. A fourth seat, chosen by architects and surveyors, had a turnout of nearly 25 percent. Business and trade groups account for about half the council’s 70 seats.
Only one disqualified lawmaker, Edward Yiu, was competing again after officials unexpectedly approved his candidacy. Two more seats will be decided later because of ongoing legal action.
Governments and rights groups have expressed concern about the disqualifications.
“The by-elections have been tainted by government-sanctioned political screening which has resulted in the disqualification of elected lawmakers and candidates,” the British nongovernment organization Hong Kong Watch said in a report last week.
Election results are expected early Monday.