HONG KONG – Young activists and localist candidates dominated Hong Kong’s unofficial pro-democracy primaries over the weekend, with hundreds of thousands of people voting despite warnings the election could violate the territory's new security law imposed by Beijing.
Candidates who topped the polls were in their 40s or younger in every constituency and included prominent pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Jimmy Sham, who helped organize many of last year’s anti-government protests that had alarmed the central government in Beijing.
Incumbent lawmakers such as Ted Hui and Eddie Chu, known for their vocal and outspoken criticism in legislative meetings, also took top spots.
The polls were held to whittle the pro-democracy camp’s candidates to field a unified slate in a legislative election in September in hopes of achieving a “35-plus” majority in the 70-seat legislature.
The pro-democracy camp has pledged to vote down the budget if they attain majority. Under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, the city’s leader — currently Carrie Lam — must resign if an important bill such as the budget is vetoed twice.
“The victory of movement activists in the primary implies the continuation of the spirit of our resistance against China’s growing curbs over the city’s freedoms,” Wong wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday.
“In the eyes of voters, candidates’ spirit of resistance overrides other traditional elements like policy platforms, academic and professional backgrounds,” he said.
Wong also said at the pro-democracy camp's news conference on Wednesday that President Donald Trump's signing of the Hong Kong Autonomy Act — which paves the way for sanctions to be imposed on Chinese officials in retaliation for the national security law — has shown that Beijing's actions will backfire on them.
“Eroding the freedom of Hong Kong should not be the way out, otherwise more and more action might be taken by world leaders in the future,” he said.
Lam on Monday warned organizers and candidates of the primary that the event could be considered subversive under the city's tough new national security law if the objective is to resist every policy initiative of the government.
The sweeping law Beijing enacted on June 30 in response to last year's often violent protests calling for greater democracy and police accountability outlaws secessionist, subversive and terrorist activities, as well as collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city's affairs. The maximum punishment for serious offenders is life imprisonment.
“I am not saying it has breached it, but I have to put forward a warning that if that’s going to be proven to be the case, then it’s certainly a case to be answered,” Lam said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated the pro-democracy camp on their “successful” primary election, saying that the over 600,000 Hong Kongers who voted have “demonstrated their desire to make their voices heard.”
He also said that the U.S. will monitor developments closely as the legislative elections in September draw near.
“We note with grave concern Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s threat that this primary may have violated Beijing’s new ‘national security’ law for the territory, once again demonstrating the Chinese Communist Party’s fear of democracy and its own people’s free thinking,” he said.
Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said the primary “blatantly challenges” the Basic Law. It also said it violated the national security law, singling out the organizer Benny Tai and accusing him of subversive activities and advocating for the independence of Hong Kong.
Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong also accused the organizers of planning the event “with the support of foreign forces,” and said that the primaries collected a large amount of personal information from the people and may violate privacy regulations.
On Wednesday, one of the organizers, former lawmaker Au Nok-hin, ended his association with the primary election and said in a statement posted on Facebook that he is withdrawing “due to the accusation from the Liaison Office and Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office recently.”
He said that even though the pro-democracy camp had emphasized repeatedly that the primary election was legal, there have been accusations otherwise, which has created a “risk of personal safety.”
“It is a hard decision ... I hope everyone could understand my limitations,” he said, apologizing for his withdrawal.