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Young activists dominate Hong Kong opposition primary victors

Voters seek new blood despite candidates' risk of disqualification under security law

Pro-democracy activists Tiffany Yuen Ka-wai and Joshua Wong attend a campaign event during primary elections in Hong Kong on July 11.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Despite warnings from the Chinese government and its pro-Beijing followers in Hong Kong, voters in the territory have indicated their desire to see young activists contesting in the upcoming legislative election in September.

Preliminary results of the opposition's primary election over the weekend shows that candidates in their early 40s and younger dominated the top slots in every constituency, although they could be disqualified from running by the Hong Kong government using the new national security law.

"Voting in the primary was the very first step in winning over fear after the passage of the national security law," Joshua Wong wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday morning after the preliminary results of the two-day primary showed that he received more than 30,000 votes, winning the top slot in his Kowloon East constituency.

Wong, 23, passed the mark to be nominated for the constituency in September by the pro-democracy bloc, along with four other candidates.

"The results imply that pro-democracy supporters generally prefer younger candidates, especially those who were actively involved in last year's street protests," Gary Tang, an assistant professor at Hang Seng University of Hong Kong, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

In defiance of the new security law, turnout for the primary exceeded organizers' expectations, giving the vote even stronger credibility, Tang said.

Hong Kong activist Leung Kwok-hung, second from left, known as "Long Hair," appears at a rally on July 13 on the anniversary of the death of Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo.   © Reuters

The primary attracted over 600,000 voters, but Beijing and the Hong Kong government have hinted they will apply the security law to prosecute and disqualify candidates.

On Tuesday afternoon, the central government's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in Beijing issued a statement labeling the primary "illegal" and an "open challenge" to the Basic Law, the city's constitution, as well as the national security law. It singled out legal scholar Benny Tai, organizer of the event, for seeking to foment a "color revolution" against the state and transform Hong Kong into a "base of infiltration and subversion."

Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong had issued a similar statement late Monday night after the preliminary voting results were released, saying that the primary had been conducted "under the support of foreign forces," without citing evidence.

According to the office's spokesperson, the primary election activity constituted the crime of "subverting state power," one of the four offenses stipulated in the new law.

Earlier that evening, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam also said the primary could be considered as an act of subversion although her comments were milder than those from the liaison office.

"I'm not saying that it has breached it, but I have to put forward a warning that if it is proven to be the case, then there is certainly a case to answer," she said.

The new law grants the Hong Kong government the power to disqualify anyone from running for office, including to the Legislative Council, if convicted of an offense endangering national security.

Although the primary could help the pro-democracy camp to secure more seats in the legislature with better coordination, potential disqualifications of popular candidates will likely hamper the group's goal of winning a majority, Tang said.

In the most hotly contested battle in the New Territories East constituency, Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam and Ventus Lau, both in their 20s, each won more than 26,000 votes to finish in the top two spots. In Kowloon West, Jimmy Sham, 33, who organized last year's mass rallies that attracted millions of people, collected the most number of votes.

The outcome did not eliminate incumbents, but age appeared to play an important factor. Ted Hui and Eddie Chu, both currently holding seats at the Legislative Council, were top winners in their respective constituencies on Hong Kong Island and in the New Territories West, are 38 and 42, respectively.

On the other hand, two-term legislator Helena Wong and veteran politician Leung Kwok-hung, popularly known as "Long Hair," both in their 60s, were unable to garner enough popular support and fell short of the threshold to be on the ballot.

"Why so many people come out to vote is that they cannot come out to march -- you cannot come out for anything -- but voting is something we have the freedom to do, because it's an individual act," said Lee Cheuk-yan, a former lawmaker and a longtime pro-democracy activist.

The organization he chairs hosted a commemoration event on Monday for Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died under custody in China three years ago. "We were not in an assembly, we were not marching," Lee said.

Lee himself stood in court earlier on Monday. He is charged with inciting others to participate in Hong Kong's annual Tiananmen Square crackdown memorial on June 4, which was deemed illegal this year due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

"People in Hong Kong are so frustrated by the recent situation, where they are so suppressed that they went to support the election," Lee said. "It is also a protest vote against the national security law."

Additional reporting by Michelle Chan in Hong Kong.

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