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Hong Kong’s political elite began voting to pick new city lawmakers on Sunday under Beijing’s “patriots only” rules that drastically reduce the number of directly elected seats and control who can run for office.

It is the first legislature poll overseen by a new political blueprint that China imposed on Hong Kong in response to massive and often violent pro-democracy protests two years ago.

All candidates have been vetted for their patriotism and political loyalty to China and only 20 of the 90 legislature seats will be directly elected.

Voting centers opened citywide at 8:30 a.m. for some 4.5 million registered voters in the city of 7.5 million and will close 14 hours later with polling suggesting the turnout could be low.

The largest chunk of legislature seats — 40 — will be picked by a committee of 1,500 staunch Beijing loyalists.

The remaining 30 will be chosen by reliably pro-Beijing committees that represent special-interest and industry groups.

Low turnout?

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and her ministers have pushed to drum up public enthusiasm over the polls.

For the first time polling stations have been set up at the border to cater to Hong Kongers living in mainland China.

The government has bought up newspaper front pages and billboards, sent flyers to every household, pinged mobile phones with reminders to vote and made public transport free for the day.

Private companies have also answered the call, with companies like property giant Sun Hung Kai and accounting multinational KPMG encouraging staff to vote according to media reports.

Police officers stand guard outside a polling station in Hong Kong on Sunday. | REUTERS
Police officers stand guard outside a polling station in Hong Kong on Sunday. | REUTERS

Despite the citywide publicity blitz, the latest polling data showed only 48% of respondents said they would vote — a record low — and 52% said they found no candidate worthy of support.

Lam has sought to manage expectations, telling state media last week that a low turnout could indicate “the government is doing well and its credibility is high”.

Independent polling places Lam’s public approval rating at around 36%.

Sunday’s election has received vocal backing from Beijing, which sees the new system as a way to root out “anti-China” elements and restore order in a legislature freed from a disruptive opposition.

Critics counter that authoritarian China has all but banned opposition politics in a city that once boasted a rambunctious political scene.

Dozens of prominent opposition figures — including many democrats who won legislature seats in the previous election — have been jailed, disqualified or have fled overseas.

Boycotts ‘illegal’

Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy parties have put forward no candidates.

A growing number of Hong Kong democracy activists abroad have also openly advocated a boycott, describing the polls as a “sham”.

Activist Sunny Cheung and former lawmaker Ted Hui hosted a livestream on Saturday evening aimed at persuading voters to stay home.

“I believe Hong Kongers who experienced the 2019 (democracy) movement will remain true to their principles and boycott this election,” Cheung wrote on Facebook.

Hui, who now lives in Australia, took to Twitter on Sunday morning saying the world should “look closely at Hong Kong’s sham election today, and think of the real candidates who were thrown in jail for almost one year now”.

Hong Kongers are allowed to cast blank ballots or not vote.

But earlier this year authorities made it a crime to “incite” others to boycott elections or cast blank or spoiled ballots.

Authorities have arrested 10 people under this law so far, mostly for social media posts.

They have also issued arrest warrants for activists overseas, including Hui and Cheung, and threatened western media outlets with prosecution for editorials critical of the new political system.

Police said they will deploy more than 10,000 officers on Sunday to ensure a “safe and smooth” election.

In a move laden with symbolism, Hong Kong’s official seal was replaced by China’s national emblem in the city’s legislature ahead of Sunday.

Officials said it was a temporary switch to facilitate oath-taking ceremonies for lawmakers next month.

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