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Over 500,000 HK residents turn out to pick Legco candidates

Their defiance points to continued resistance to Beijing's decision to impose its national security law

Hongkongers waiting to vote in the election to pick candidates for the September legislative elections, defying warnings from government officials that the polls may be in breach of China's new security law.

Hong Kong

MORE than half a million Hong Kong residents defied government warnings and a fresh coronavirus outbreak to vote in an unofficial primary, in 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 per cent 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 the organisers' expected tally, came despite government statements that the effort could violate provisions of the new security law.

The results were originally meant to come out on Monday, but were delayed amid lengthy vote-counting. However, that still gives the selected candidates plenty of 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 on 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 organised by the government. It's organised by civil society. And so this is amazing."

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On Monday, the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute - which helped the democrats conduct the primary - said all votes on Hong Kong Island were counted by 5 pm; counting was ongoing for other areas. The institute expected to be finished by around mid-day on Tuesday, the group said.

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 organisers. Voting on Saturday at the 250 stations across the city went relatively smoothly, despite some minor scuffles, Radio Television Hong Kong quoted him as saying.

Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Erick Tsang suggested on 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 the invalidation of candidates who expressed opposition toward the legislation, which has been criticised for undermining the city's autonomy from China.

Mr 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 indicated that the authorities' suggestions of illegality - and a warning that district council offices should not be used as primary polling stations - may have backfired.

Organiser Benny Tai said last week that the primary wasn't an act of "secession" or "collusion" because it did not have an agenda to split the country and was not sourcing funds externally.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong found in a new survey that the majority of US businesses operating in the city were worried about the law's impact, with the potential for arbitrary application "frightening to many". BLOOMBERG

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