When Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians won a resounding victory in local council elections in 2019, they inspired hopes of democratic change. Now, fears of arrest have driven most of them to quit, laying bare that dream’s dramatic collapse.

The opposition had swept nearly 90% of the 452 seats in Hong Kong’s district councils, riding on widespread anti-government sentiment that had turned into months of protests. Though the polls were for the lowest rung of elected office, they were regarded as an informal referendum that showed the public’s support for the pro-democracy camp. The victory dealt a stinging defeat to Beijing and raised the opposition’s expectations that even greater electoral successes were within reach.

But in less than two years, Beijing has struck back, demolishing those gains as part of a broader security crackdown that has drastically raised the risk of political dissent.