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Hong Kong holds first council elections under new rules that shut out pro-democracy candidates

Police officers patrol outside a polling station during the District Council elections in Hong Kong, Sunday, Dec. 10.Louise Delmotte/Associated Press

HONG KONG (AP) — Residents went to the polls on Sunday in Hong Kong’s first district council elections since an electoral overhaul was implemented under Beijing’s guidance of “patriots” administering the city, effectively shutting out all pro-democracy candidates.

Turnout is expected to be much lower than in the last elections, held at the height of the 2019 anti-government protests. Some pro-democracy voters, dismayed by the drastic rule changes, including the elimination of most directly elected seats, are turning their backs on the polls.

The final turnout will be a barometer of public sentiment toward the "patriots"-only system, the new political order under the Hong Kong government's crackdown on dissidents following the 2019 protests — the most concerted challenge to Beijing since the former British colony returned to China's rule in 1997.

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China promised the semi-autonomous territory could retain its Western-style liberties for 50 years under the “one country, two systems” framework. But that promise has become increasingly threadbare after Beijing imposed a national security law that led to the arrest and silencing of many pro-democracy activists.

In 2021, the city amended its electoral laws for its legislature, drastically reducing the public’s ability to vote and increasing the number of pro-Beijing lawmakers making decisions for the city. After the changes, the turnout rate plunged from 58% to 30% in a legislative election that year.

The district councils, which primarily handle municipal matters such as organizing construction projects and public facilities, were the last major political bodies mostly chosen by the public.

The elections four years ago held symbolic importance in the anti-government movement, with a record turnout rate of 71%. The pro-democracy camp’s landslide victory acted as a rebuke to the government’s handling of the 2019 protests.

But an amendment passed in July slashed the proportion of directly elected seats from some 90% to about 20% — a level even lower than when the bodies were first introduced in the 1980s under British rule. A new nomination requirement has effectively resulted in the exclusion of pro-democracy candidates from the elections for the first time in about four decades.

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At a polling station in the residential district of Wong Tai Sin on Sunday morning, about 30 people stood in line outside the center waiting for the doors to open at 8:30 am. More than 10,000 police officers were deployed across the city to ensure the elections would be conducted in a safe and orderly manner.

Housewife Ivy Sze, 37, said the overhaul did not shake her confidence in the electoral system. But she said she felt there were fewer voters in the morning than in previous elections.

“There used to be a long queue outside,” she said, holding a thank-you card from the government, part of what officials called a “heartwarming” gesture for those who voted.

But university student Timothy Cheung, 21, decided not to vote following the rule changes, saying his peers also intended to abstain from the polls.

“It's useless even if I vote. All candidates are leaning to one side,” he said, referring to their pro-government backgrounds.

Government officials have downplayed the significance of the turnout rate as a measure of the overhaul’s success. On Friday, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang said not voting doesn’t necessarily imply opposition to the elections, adding one's non-participation could be due to other reasons.

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Still, Hong Kong leader John Lee and his administration have stepped up efforts to drum up support for the polls. The government held various promotional activities, including carnivals, an outdoor concert and free admission to some museums.

The city’s prominent airline, Cathay Pacific, also offered discount airfares for passengers traveling back from mainland China to Hong Kong, saying it wanted to help residents “actively participate” in the polls.

Lee earlier this month said civil servants have a responsibility to support the government to implement its policies, urging them to lead by example and vote. He and his wife went to a polling station to vote on Sunday morning and described the elections as the “last piece of the puzzle” to implement the principle of “patriots” administering the city.

“The elected councilors will serve the interests of Hong Kong. They won’t betray the interests of Hong Kong and the interests of the country,” he said.

Members of the League of Social Democrats, one of the city’s remaining pro-democracy political parties, had planned to stage a small protest against Lee to express their discontent over the electoral rule changes. But their members were arrested by the police after being stopped and searched in Central, the group said.

The police did not immediately reply to The Associated Press’ request for comment.