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People hand out leaflets for candidates during the district council election in Hong Kong on Dec. 10.ISAAC LAWRENCE/Getty Images

I moved to Hong Kong almost a decade ago. Since then, as a reporter for both local and international media, I have covered six elections, along with countless campaign events, legislative sessions and pro-democracy protests.

But on Sunday, having recently gained the right, I did something I have never done before in Hong Kong. I cast a ballot – in one of the least democratic elections in the city’s history.

My ballot will not count, as it was blank. But by participating at all, I was somewhat unusual: In the first 10 hours of voting, less than 25 per cent of the electorate took part. The previous district council elections, in November, 2019, saw a record 79 per cent of voters cast ballots, or more than three million people, resulting in a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates.

At the time, Hong Kong was in the midst of the most sustained anti-government unrest since the territory’s 1997 handover to Chinese rule. With the district council elections framed as a de facto referendum on those protests, local officials had assured Beijing a supposed silent majority of voters would repudiate the pro-democracy movement. Instead, voters elected a radical slate of candidates, many of them active protesters.

Today, few of those elected are still in office. Many were either disqualified or forced to resign amid a crackdown against the pro-democracy movement that began in 2020 when Beijing imposed a draconian national security law. Many former district councillors are now in prison, facing trial or have fled overseas. Electoral reforms that followed the security law have drastically reduced participation in Hong Kong’s political system, which was already only semi-democratic.

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The district councils, which advise the government on local issues and provide some limited services, saw the biggest change. Once among the most democratic parts of government – with almost all seats chosen by universal suffrage – they are now one of the least, with only the closed circle selection process for choosing the city’s leader giving voters less say.

Under the new system, voters Sunday were choosing 88 of 470 seats, candidates for which had to be “patriots” and secure nominations from three government-appointed committees. Remaining seats were chosen by those same committees, or directly appointed by Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee. The resulting councils will be headed by unelected government bureaucrats.

In 2019, more than a thousand candidates stood for election. This year, 171 people were nominated to the directly-elected seats, or just under two candidates per seat. More than 75 per cent sit on the nominating committees; many voted for themselves. No pro-democracy or opposition figures were able to run, and even smaller pro-Beijing parties and nominally centrist groups found themselves largely shut out.

In some areas, candidates were reportedly not even bothering to campaign, though this changed in recent weeks, as the government began to express concern about turnout. Millions have been spent to try and get out the vote, with little apparent effect beyond employing a legion of canvassers to cover Hong Kong in election banners and flyers.

After lacklustre turnout for legislative elections in 2021, Hong Kong officials argued this was no indictment of the new system, as plenty of countries see equivalent levels of engagement. Regardless of location, low turnout generally is seen as an indictment of, if not the system, then the candidates and parties involved, and often leads to political soul-searching.

But what is stunning in Hong Kong is that the city’s rulers have alienated a previously highly engaged voter base. This new apathy goes far beyond not voting in what many regard as a rigged election.

For years, political life in Hong Kong was incredibly dynamic. Hundreds of thousands took part in the annual Tiananmen Square massacre vigil, or pro-democracy protests to mark the handover anniversary on July 1.

During the 2019 unrest, millions took to the streets in peaceful marches. Young people volunteered for political parties, staged sit-ins and stood for election. Even as the pro-democracy faced defeat after defeat, there was an indefatigable sense of optimism and hope.

This died with the national security law. Today, while the anger and frustration that drove the 2019 protests have not gone away, most people do not talk of things one day getting better – they talk about moving, or they don’t talk about politics at all. Protests are almost unheard of and nigh impossible to stage, as several activists discovered Sunday when they were surrounded by police before they could get started.

Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers have left in recent years – an exodus that shows no signs of slowing. The government knows that those that remain are not sold on Beijing’s vision for the city. Officials speak constantly of the risk of future unrest, despite the draconian controls now in place (and more on the way). Efforts to induce patriotism are ramping up, with children as young as 8 to start receiving lessons about the national security law.

In 2019, the line for my local polling station stretched around the block. People queued up for hours to cast their votes. On Sunday, I was in and out in less than five minutes.

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