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After months of protest, Hong Kong’s interest in local elections soars

Hong Kong will face its first electoral test since anti-government protests began in June. The district council elections are usually focused on local community issues and will not change Hong Kong’s political system. But more than half of Hong Kong’s population has registered to vote in what is seen as a timely referendum on support for the movement. Special correspondent Divya Gopalan reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    People in Hong Kong will vote on Sunday for members of the District Council. That's a body that usually focuses on local community issues. But because this is the first election since the beginning of protests that have gripped Hong Kong since May, Sunday's vote could show just how much support the demonstrators have built.

    Special correspondent Divya Gopalan is in Hong Kong and has the story.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Over the past week, some of the most dramatic clashes between police and protesters took place at some of Hong Kong's leading universities.

    Nearly 1,000 people barricaded themselves in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus, bricks, Molotov cocktails, stones catapulted and even bows and arrows pit against tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and sponge grenades.

    And while students and police fight in the hearts of the city's financial district, an almost daily routine unfolds. Mass protesters face off against police on streets flanked by luxury shops, banks and international companies just around the corner from the stock exchange.

    Despite the escalation in violence, there's still widespread support for the young protesters. For more than a week now, every lunchtime, office workers swarm the heart of Hong Kong's financial center, bringing the city to a standstill. They chant popular protest slogans. And they say they want to highlight what's perceived as police brutality and the excessive force used by police.

    Parts of the outrage on the streets is due to the fact that Beijing is seen as having backtracked on its promises to allow the Hong Kong people to directly choose their leader. Currently, a committee representing various sectors of industry, the legislative council and interest groups vote for the chief executive, who's then endorsed by the Communist Party.

    But, this weekend, Hong Kongers will be able to express their discontent at the ballot box at the District Council elections. Local district councillors to usually deal with community issues, and they don't wield much power, but they could impact the makeup of Hong Kong's government, as councillors hold nearly 10 percent of the seats in the committee that will eventually choose the city's leader.

    This year, it's seen as a barometer of how much the wider population supports the protest movement. For the first time ever, each of the 400-plus seats is hotly contested. A record number of people have registered to vote. And there has been a surge in candidates, with 20 percent of them running for the first time, with most of the candidates are presenting the interests of the protesters or the Hong Kong government.

  • Ho Tsz-Chung (through translator):

    I wish to represent both the citizens and the protesters in the government.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    It's been a long road for 22-year-old Ho Tsz-Chung. He has been joining pro-democracy protests since he was 17 and has taken part in this movement since it started in June. But, in September, he was arrested after a confrontation with the police. They have yet to charge him.

    His father's kicked him out of his home for his activism and now feels that the street protests haven't been able to achieve enough. So he's taking a different approach by working within the system.

  • Ho Tsz-Chung (through translator):

    I want to try to broaden the battle line for the resistance. I believe that if there is only resistance on the streets, we won't be able to win this fight. So I believe that only by going through the district council can we defeat this government.

    I love Hong Kong. I don't want it to be like the rest of China, the place with no democracy, no freedom, no culture, and no human rights.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    For U.K. educator Jason Chong, working within the system means understanding and accepting that Hong Kong is part of China. The 28-year-old aspiring politician has joined one of Hong Kong's most established pro-Beijing party and was inspired to run in these elections because of the unrest.

  • Jason Chong:

    Some of the youngsters, They misunderstood what freedom and democracy means. If they're really tracing for a strong democratic city, they go and vote. Destroying anything opportunity help at all. Destroying the facilities against the government in this violent way is not the right path.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    The district council elections is the only time Hong Kong people will get to directly choose who represents them. It is one man, one vote, which is why it is being given so much importance this year.

    But not everyone is free to run for office. One candidate is barred from running, democracy activist Joshua Wong. The Hong Kong election officials say it's because he still believes independence could be an option for Hong Kong's future, which goes against the city's constitution.

    But Hong Kong's highest-profile activist says that even this election has been influenced by China's communist government.

  • Joshua Wong:

    With my international advocacy, Beijing hoped to ignore my words and to restrict me to enter the institution.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Twenty-three-year-old Joshua Wong started pushing for democratic reform in the city as a teenager, spearheading the landmark pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014.

    He spent time in jail on charges related to those protests. He is considered to be one of Hong Kong's first political prisoners. He has remained at the forefront of the latest protest movement, calling for international attention to the situation in Hong Kong.

    Wong and team of democracy activists have been lobbying the U.S. Congress to hold officials in mainland China and Hong Kong to account for human rights abuses. The bill was passed this week.

  • Joshua Wong:

    Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act is the act that was — sanctioned individuals who suppress on Hong Kong people's human rights, including government officials, police force, and also the election officers that apply political censorship and with their abuse of power.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Thousands of people matched to the U.S. Consulate in September to call on Congress to push the bill through at a time of confrontation between Beijing and Washington, with the two sides in the middle of a trade war.

    Both Beijing and the Hong Kong government denounced the U.S. move.

    Regina Ip, the former secretary for security of Hong Kong and a current Cabinet member, says the move could backfire, adversely affecting U.S.-Hong Kong trade and diplomatic relations.

  • Regina Ip:

    Beijing has said there will be countermeasures. Hong Kong might take countermeasures. If they impose sanctions on people in charge, quite unnecessarily, totally unwarranted, we might have to take countermeasures.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    The authorities have tried to quell the unrest by using a colonial era emergency measure to ban face masks, which had become a symbol of the leaderless movement. This week, the high court overturned that ruling, saying it was unconstitutional, according to Hong Kong's basic law.

    But the Chinese government waded in, saying the court's ruling was a blatant challenge to their authority and that only they had the right to decide on issues regarding the constitution. So now the courts have reinstated the ban for seven days, until the Hong Kong government can appeal the ruling.

  • Anson Chan:

    Who will ever believe that our courts in Hong Kong are independent?

    As chief secretary, Anson Chan oversaw the transition of Hong Kong from a British colony to special administrative region, or SAR, of China. And she says it's this kind of interference by the Chinese government that has angered many people in Hong Kong.

  • Anson Chan:

    This protest movement is not about overthrowing the SAR government or the central government. It is about reminding the central government, you promised Hong Kong people a high degree of autonomy. And you must stick to these promises.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    The Beijing government says it's living up to its commitment to provide autonomy to Hong Kong.

    And while Sunday's elections are seen as important, the results are not likely to quell the crisis gripping the city.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Divya Gopalan in Hong Kong.

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