HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens lined up to vote over the weekend in what the Chinese-ruled city opposition camp says is a symbolic protest vote against severe national security laws imposed directly by Beijing.
The unofficial poll will decide the most pro-democracy candidates to contest the Legislative Council elections in September, when they aim to ride a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment raised by the law to take control for the first time by pro-Beijing rivals.
While the primaries are for the opposition camp only, observers watch closely as they claim that the turnout will serve as evidence of wider opposition to the law, which critics say will seriously undermine the city̵
“A high turnout will send a very strong signal to the international community that we in Hong Kong never give up,” said Sunny Cheung, 24, one of a group of aspiring young Democrats who are lobbying and making intermittent speeches.
“And that we are still with the democratic field, we still support democracy and freedom.”
Defying warnings from a senior Hong Kong official that the vote may not be in accordance with national security law, young and old residents flocked to over 250 polling stations across the city, manned by thousands of volunteers.
Long queues formed in the streets, in residential estates and in businesses turned into polling stations, with people casting an online vote on their cell phones after verifying their identity.
Organizers said 500,000 people voted 7.5 million late in the city on Sunday afternoon. The full turnout is expected to be announced on Monday morning after two full days of voting this weekend.
The law punishes what China broadly describes as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to 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 will try to prevent some candidates from running for the September elections.
“They can arrest or disqualify any candidate they don’t like under the national security law for no proper reason,” said Owen Chow, a young democratic “localist” candidate.
At a time when Hong Kong authorities have banned public marches and demonstrations for months and months because of the social restrictions of the coronavirus and arrested people for shouting slogans and raising blank papers, the vote is seen as a crucial and rare window for the populist expression.
“It’s a proxy referendum against national security law,” said Democratic legislator Eddie Chu outside a subway station.
Written by James Pomfret; Editing by Catherine Evans