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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk after Lam took her oath, during the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China, on July 1, 2017.

Bobby Yip/Reuters

Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong appealed to the “silent majority” to cast their ballots this weekend against the protests and protesters that have rocked the territory for months – to use a rare opportunity to exercise their democratic franchise to vote against those calling for more democracy.

That’s not what happened.

Not surprisingly, Hong Kong’s silent majority instead used the moment to loudly voice their support for the territory’s reformers, who are pushing for the very thing Beijing most dislikes: freedom.

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Seventeen out of Hong Kong’s 18 district councils are now controlled by parties critical of Beijing. The chaos of the past months has not caused Hong Kongers to abandon talk of universal suffrage, autonomy and greater independence from China.

On the contrary, the protests, and Beijing’s rigid response to them, appear to have driven people to demand change and to demand it now – while they still have a voice.

Beijing allows Hong Kong’s district councils to be democratically elected because they have little power. They’re responsible for minor neighbourhood issues, not big questions of law, order and government.

Hong Kong’s main legislature, the Legislative Council, is elected by a complex and restricted system that allows Beijing to limit opposition and control who runs for office. The territory’s chief executive is chosen by a committee under Beijing’s influence. And if persuasion, pressure and manipulation don’t succeed, the central government in Beijing reserves the right to intervene directly in Hong Kong affairs.

But in the midst of a battle for the territory’s soul, Sunday’s elections became an opportunity for voters to signal what kind of future they want. Both sides pitched the vote as a way to send a message. Turnout hit a record high, making the message all the clearer: Hong Kong wants to be free.

After the handover from Britain in 1997, both the Legislative Council and chief executive were expected to evolve to election by universal suffrage. But that’s not what China has allowed.

As a result, Hong Kong’s most democratic bodies – they have some nominees, but the vast majority of members are elected – are the district councils. They may not have much power, but they’re the only way the people of Hong Kong can make their voice heard in Beijing.

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It’s that or protesting in the streets. And street protests have become a pretext for the central government in Beijing to insist that the territory is spinning out of control, and that stronger measures should be taken by local authorities. That comes with the implication that, if China’s chosen officials in Hong Kong don’t act, the hard men of Beijing will.

In what appears to be the central government’s approved script for the city’s future, its people can either shut up while Beijing gradually increases its hold over the territory’s internal affairs or, if they speak out and demonstrate, they can prove just how necessary new restrictions are on Hong Kong’s dangerous, foreign freedoms.

In an atmosphere where intervention by Beijing is feared and expected, people voted on Sunday as if it was their last opportunity. Depending on how things go, it might be.

So what happens next? That’s up to the Communist Party government in Beijing, and its puppet in Hong Kong, Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Their reactions have not inspired confidence.

Ms. Lam long ago admitted that she is not at liberty to act independently of the central government in China. And that government, under General Secretary Xi Jinping, is focused on rolling back independent thinking and practices throughout China.

After months of protests, Ms. Lam this fall withdrew the extradition bill that lit this year’s protests. The bill would have allowed China’s politicized legal system to reach into Hong Kong, threatening the territory’s civil rights, its rule of law, its independent judiciary and its citizens’ freedom to speak freely and criticize the communist regime – all of which are unknown and illegal in mainland China.

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The bill may be gone but it was always the spark, not the underlying issue. Hong Kong’s democracy movement, which over the past few years has repeatedly resurfaced – demanding more representative government, more autonomy and more distance from Beijing – will not go away quietly.

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