Ballots meet batons in Hong Kong

The popularity of the pro-democracy protests will be tested in Sunday’s local district elections, which are about the only real democracy left in the Chinese territory.

A district council candidate, Cathy Yau, distributes flyers during her election campaign in Hong Kong. Yau, a former police officer, grew exasperated as police used more force to quell protests. She quit the force in July.

Hong Kong takes a break this Sunday from months of pro-democracy protests to actually practice democracy. Voters will elect local district councils in what are the only elections still not fully precooked following China’s takeover of the former British colony 22 years ago.

Given the surge in people registering to vote in this election, Beijing’s nondemocratic rulers could be handed an objective measure of Hong Kong’s desire for freedom, civic rights, and rule of law.

Voter registration has set a record with the biggest increase among those under 35, an age group with a heavy presence in the protests. In addition, almost every district has a pro-democracy candidate, unlike previous elections that were dominated by pro-Beijing parties – and by local issues such as trash collection.

“Now we think every ... aspect of civil society is important. We hope to regain Hong Kong, bit by bit,” said 28-year-old candidate Kinda Li to the Financial Times.

The vote will be the first test of public opinion since the protests began after the city’s Beijing-controlled leaders tried to ram through a proposal to allow Hong Kongers to be extradited to the mainland for criminal trials. The bill was withdrawn in the face of millions of people taking to the streets. Protesters now demand full rights to elect top leaders under universal suffrage.

Even before Sunday’s vote, Beijing was reminded of Hong Kong’s legacy of rule of law. The city’s independent judiciary ruled a week ago that a government ban on face coverings during protests is unconstitutional. China strongly countered that only it can judge and decide Hong Kong’s laws.

If pro-democracy candidates win a majority of district seats in the election, it will show strong support for the protests and might even influence who is chosen as Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2022.

Most of all, it would demonstrate that Beijing’s model of governance – which is now one-man rule under Communist Party chief Xi Jinping – is losing its appeal. Hong Kong prefers a system in which candidates compete for votes by their ideas and respect for individual rights rather than one that relies on force to keep a regime in power. A small election could be a giant message for the world’s most populous country.

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