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600,000 Hongkongers Voted in Unofficial Primary Election, Despite Warning It Could Violate Security Law

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More than half a million Hong Kong residents defied government warnings and a fresh coronavirus outbreak to vote in an unofficial primary, a strong turnout that signals continued resistance to Beijing’s decision to impose a broad national security law just two weeks ago.

More than 610,000 residents — representing more than 13% of registered voters — cast ballots in the two-day vote to narrow down the opposition candidates competing in elections for the city’s Legislative Council set for Sept. 6. The turnout, which was more than three times organizers’ expected tally, came despite government statements that the effort could violate provisions of the new security law.

The results were slated to be announced later Monday, giving the selected candidates time to officially register when the window opens later this month. Those selected must still overcome calls for disqualification by pro-Beijing politicians, with more moderate pro-democracy groups issuing a call Sunday for their supporters to challenge more radical “localist” candidates.

“People took this opportunity to make their voice heard,” Alvin Yeung, a pro-democracy lawmaker, told Bloomberg Television on Monday. “We’re talking about 600,000 people. It’s not a small number. And remember, this is not an election organized by the government. It’s organized by civil society. And so this is amazing.”

The opposition hopes to ride the momentum of a decisive victory in last November’s District Council elections to secure an unprecedented majority in the legislature. That would give it the power to block Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s agenda — and even theoretically force her to resign by rejecting her budget proposals. However, the new security law has compounded risks that the Beijing-backed government will disqualify pro-democracy candidates to keep them from winning enough seats.

“Hong Kong people just made a miracle by telling the world that more democratic candidates should join the elections,” said Au Nok Hin, one of the organizers. Voting on Saturday at the 250 stations across the city went relatively smoothly, despite some minor scuffles, Radio Television Hong Kong quoted Au as saying.

Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Erick Tsang suggested Thursday that participation in the primary could run afoul of the law. If convicted by the courts, violators would be barred from seeking or holding public office for an unspecified period. Another top Hong Kong official last month advocated for the invalidation of candidates who expressed opposition toward the legislation, which has been criticized for undermining the city’s autonomy from China.

Tsang said that planning and participating in primaries could violate the law’s articles of secession, subversion and collusion, as well as its Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance. But democrats rejected the government’s remarks, and the turnout suggests that authorities’ suggestions of illegality — and a warning that district council offices shouldn’t be used as primary polling stations — may have backfired.

Organizer Benny Tai said last week that the primary wasn’t an act of “secession” or “collusion” because it didn’t have an agenda to split the country and wasn’t sourcing funds externally.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong found in a new survey that the majority of U.S. businesses operating in the city were worried about the law’s impact, with the potential for arbitrary application “frightening to many.”

‘More Legitimacy’

On Friday, police searched the offices of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute and seized its computers, Au said Saturday. They had a warrant and didn’t make any arrests, he said. The institute is a widely cited pollster helping the pro-democracy movement with the primaries.

Voting for the primaries was delayed until noon on Saturday as a result of the raid, the organizers said. Police were seen visiting some of the polling stations. A police spokeswoman said officers from the cybersecurity crime bureau conducted the search after receiving complaints from members of the public about leaked information.

Hong Kong, which is seeing a spike in locally transmitted coronavirus cases, has also reimposed social-distancing restrictions that went effect Saturday and could have dissuaded some residents from coming out to vote. The city reported 30 new local virus cases on Sunday.

Pan-democrat organizers held media briefings in the past week to bolster public support and appeal for funds to cover expenses, but as of Friday had achieved only half their month-long crowd-funding goal of HK$3.5 million ($450,000). Candidates — including prominent activist Joshua Wong — had set up street booths in their respective districts in a last-ditch effort to secure votes ahead of the primary.

The government has blocked nine candidates from running because of their support for Hong Kong independence and self-determination since 2016, when it first took the then-unprecedented step of banning politicians from running for Legco due to their political views.

“Authorities want to use the rule of fear to suppress any different views and exactly how we can counteract the rule of fear is by doing the things we believe to be right,” Tai said. “The more people coming out to vote, it will give more legitimacy to the whole process.”

–With assistance from Stanley James, Julia Fioretti, Venus Feng, Matthew G. Miller and Karen Leigh.

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