HONG KONG — Clutching a microphone outside a busy subway station, Gwyneth Ho, a pro-democracy candidate for Hong Kong’s legislature, made an unlikely pitch: Voting for her was, she conceded, potentially pointless.
Under a new, far-reaching national security law imposed by the central Chinese government, speaking out against the authorities could be deemed criminal. Opposition candidates, whose calls for democratic freedoms could be deemed as hostile to China’s ruling Communist Party, say they fear that whoever has protested the law could be disqualified from running or jailed. Even if they did succeed in being elected, there was no guarantee that the party would let them govern.
But Ms. Ho, a 29-year-old former journalist, urged pro-democracy supporters to keep fighting, no matter the odds. “We all know, we do something not because it’s effective, or because it’ll succeed,” she called out to commuters streaming past on a recent Wednesday late last month. “It’s because we can’t give up on any front.”
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has been hobbled by mass arrests at protests and by the city’s new security law, which bans vaguely defined crimes of secession, subversion and terrorism, and is already working to mute dissent. The one remaining avenue of resisting Beijing’s tightening grip over the city, they say, is to capture a majority in the legislature in September.
The obstacles are enormous. Hong Kong’s electoral system has long been weighted heavily in favor of the establishment that is backed by the Chinese Communist Party. Pro-Beijing parties are far better funded than the opposition. Now, supporters of the democratic camp are grappling with whether to rely on familiar, moderate politicians or to abandon them in favor of more confrontational candidates — and those disagreements threaten to divide the vote.
The opposition bloc this past weekend sought to avoid such a split by holding its first primary to help determine who should run in September. Despite a government minister’s warning that simply holding such a primary might be illegal under the national security law, more than 600,000 people turned out to vote in the unofficial poll.
Preliminary results from the primary released on Monday night showed that voters favored candidates who have been prominent supporters of the pro-democracy protests. Ms. Ho was a front-runner in her district, New Territories East. Also in the lead were activists such as Joshua Wong, who led the large street demonstrations in 2014 for freer elections, and Ted Hui and Roy Kwong, young lawmakers who often tried to mediate between protesters and the police during last year’s unrest.
“They are in favor of electing people who have a strong record in the protest movement so that they can continue the protests” within the legislative body, said Ma Ngok, an associate professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Those who have strong recognition in the protests stand out, irrespective of their parties.”
The turnout represented more than half of the opposition’s votes in 2016, and was several times higher than the organizers had expected. Voters went to polling stations set up on sidewalks as well as in unconventional venues such as a lingerie shop and a converted double-decker bus.
Joyce Leung, a 35-year-old mother of two young children, said that she had decided to vote for candidates who regularly attended the protests even though they were at risk of being barred from competing.
“I think they will definitely be disqualified,” she said on Sunday, after having cast a vote at a sidewalk polling station on Hong Kong Island surrounded by tenement buildings, office towers and coffee shops. “But I still wanted to show them that a lot of people are supporting them.”
Hong Kong’s electoral system has never been equal. Britain had little interest in democracy when it ran the city, and China quickly undermined a pledge that the entire legislature would be elected, by maintaining the British colonial system of limited voting. The result was a hybrid system — combining elements of democracy with vestiges of the autocratic colonial system — that left China with an assurance of top-down control.
Just half of the 70 seats in the legislature represent geographical districts that are directly elected by voters. The other half are so-called functional constituencies, most chosen by corporate voting and more likely to go to establishment candidates. That tilted system has historically discouraged some Hong Kong residents from participating.
But in November, after months of fierce and at times violent antigovernment protests, voters turned out in large numbers for an election of Hong Kong’s district councilors, a low-level office that previously drew little attention. More than seven in 10 eligible voters cast ballots, compared to a previous high of 47 percent — and delivered a stunning victory for the pro-democracy camp, which swept 86 percent of the seats.
That victory shocked Beijing and emboldened protesters to set their eyes on the more ambitious target of elections for the Legislative Council, a far more powerful body.
Their goal has taken on extra urgency as other displays of dissent have become increasingly perilous under the new security law. The police now regularly ban marches, citing violence and coronavirus-prevention measures, and sweep up hundreds of demonstrators in mass arrests.
“To cast your vote, you do not need to risk your life,” Benny Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong and leading strategist for the opposition, said in June. “It is a form of protest that actually is risk-less, I would say. So why not? Why not use your vote to buy a chance?”
If the pro-democracy candidates were able to capture a majority in the legislature, they could use their position to block the government’s agenda. Some have proposed vetoing the government’s budget, which could force the dissolution of the legislature. If a new legislature were also to block the budget, the chief executive would be forced to step down.
Erick Tsang, the constitutional affairs secretary, cited such a threat when he warned last week that the pro-democracy camp’s primary could potentially violate articles of the new national security law against secession and subversion.
But the electoral push also displayed rifts within the opposition movement. A few candidates who champion more aggressive tactics refused to participate in the pro-democracy camp’s primary, arguing that voters should be able to choose from the full range of candidates in September. More moderate voices have argued that voters needed to be strategic rather than ideological, and should rally behind the candidates most likely to win.
A significant threat looms over all the pro-democracy camp’s plans: disqualification.
In the last legislative election, several candidates were barred from competing over questions of whether they acknowledged Beijing’s position that Hong Kong was an “inalienable part” of China. Six who won later lost their seats because they protested against China during their oaths of office. This year, many in the opposition fear that election officials will also bar candidates who have questioned the new security law.
Lester Shum, a 27-year-old activist and candidate who campaigned at the street booth with Ms. Ho, said his ultimate goal was for the pro-democracy camp to win so many seats that Beijing would be forced to take drastic action in response, such as disqualifying all the elected lawmakers. He said he hoped that such extreme action would then provoke an international response in support of the protesters. Mr. Shum also did well in the primaries.
“So many people came out to vote despite the threat that it may violate the national security law,” Mr. Shum said on Monday. “That means Hong Kong people have still not given up.”
But others warn that any large-scale rejection of pro-democracy candidates could cause Hong Kong to erupt. Fernando Cheung, a veteran opposition lawmaker who is stepping down this year, reflected on that possibility as he watched protesters and ordinary civilians argue with the police who had blocked off a street during a demonstration against the new security law on July 1.
“This time around we are talking about the possibility of getting more than half the seats, but I think the reality is we may not be allowed to participate in the election at all,” he said. “If that is to happen, the anger and the frustration would be extreme. I’m afraid the confrontation would be much worse than this.”