HONG KONG (AP) — Select Hong Kong residents voted for members of the Election Committee that will choose the city’s leader in the first polls Sunday following reforms meant to ensure candidates with Beijing loyalty.
The Election Committee will select 40 of 90 lawmakers in the city’s legislature during elections in December, as well as elect the Hong Kong leader during polls in March next year.
In May, the legislature amended Hong Kong’s electoral laws to ensure that only “patriots” – people who are loyal to China and the semi-autonomous territory – will rule the city. The committee also was expanded to 1,500 members, from 1,200, and the number of direct voters for committee seats was reduced from about 246,000 to less than 8,000.
The restructured electoral process guarantees a vast majority of the Elections Committee will be largely pro-Beijing candidates, who are likely to choose a chief executive and nearly half of lawmakers who are aligned with the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
“Today’s Election Committee elections are very meaningful as it is the first elections held after we have improved the electoral system to ensure that only patriots can take office,” Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said. It’s not yet known if Lam will seek reelection in March.
The changes are part of a broad crackdown on Hong Kong civil society following mass pro-democracy protests in 2019. Authorities have tightened control over the city with a sweeping national security law imposed by China’s Communist Party that effectively criminalized opposition to the government. The law and other changes have forced several civil organizations to disband or seen their leaders arrested.
Also Sunday, Hong Kong’s largest opposition trade union — the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions — said it would disband out of concerns for the safety of its members. The trade union is the latest organization to disband, following the dissolution of a teachers’ union and rally organizer the Civil Human Rights Front last month.
Critics say the changes restrict freedoms Hong Kong was promised it could maintain for 50 years following the territory’s 1997 handover to China from colonial Britain.
The nearly 4,900 voters representing different professions and industries who went to polls Sunday under a heavy police presence will choose among just 412 candidates for 364 seats in the Election Committee. Other seats were uncontested or held by people chosen based on their titles.
“This election lets us select solid patriots who love our country and Hong Kong to rule Hong Kong, and who demonstrate their strengths in Hong Kong’s administration and politics,” said Armstrong Lee, a candidate representing the social welfare sector.
Wang Ting-ting, a voter from the financial sector, said she would vote for candidates who are “patriots who love our country and love Hong Kong.”
“This is the most important,” she said. “Secondly, I would vote for those who are capable, because capability matters the most in this position.”
Lam said the new Election Committee will be broadly representative as it included more grassroots organizations and associations that represent Hong Kongers who live and work in mainland China.
Sunday’s vote was taking place at five polling stations heavily surrounded by police. Local newspaper South China Morning Post previously reported 6,000 police officers would be deployed to guard the polls, outnumbering the number of voters.
Results are expected Sunday night.
Four activists from pro-democracy political party League of Social Democrats staged a small protest near the polling station in the Wan Chai neighborhood. They laid out banners criticizing the “small circle election” as having a pretense of representing public opinion.
The four were stopped and searched by the police.
Zen Soo reported from Singapore. Associated Press video journalists Matthew Cheng and Janice Lo contributed to this report.