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Pro-democracy protesters are surrounded by police officers as they carry a banner against the chief executive election near a polling station in Hong Kong on May 8.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

A group of Hong Kong activists living in Canada, the United States and Britain say they will hold elections to a parliament-in-exile next year, aiming to create a democratic body to represent Hong Kongers around the globe as China continues to crack down on political freedoms in the former British colony.

Organizers Victor Ho and Elmer Yuen announced the formation of an “electoral organizing committee” at a press conference in Toronto on Wednesday. The committee will set out rules for an election to the parliament – intended to be held late next year – design and build a voting system, and encourage Hong Kongers all over the world to participate.

Speaking to The Globe and Mail ahead of the launch, Mr. Ho, a Vancouver-based former editor of Sing Tao Daily, said the idea was partly inspired by the record high turnout in local elections in Hong Kong in 2019, the last held before regulations imposed by Beijing required all candidates to be “patriots.”

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“Beijing altered the election legislation last year, disenfranchising the majority of Hong Kongers,” he said. The project organizers think “all Hong Kongers deserve the right to elect their representatives by free, fair and safe elections, which meet the international standard,” Mr. Ho added.

The challenges of such a project are vast, not least in ensuring confidence in an election that will, owing to the dispersed nature of the Hong Kong diaspora, have to be conducted online, raising many security concerns. Organizers will not only have to protect their system from Chinese state-backed hackers and other potential malicious actors, but also reassure voters, especially those in Hong Kong itself, that their personal information will not be compromised.

Anyone taking part in the parliament project who still lives in Hong Kong will almost certainly be breaching the city’s draconian national security law, which criminalizes secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces.

“The thing I’m most worried about is the security of the online voting system,” said Baggio Leung, Washington-based spokesman for the project. “We’re facing a pretty huge hacking force, so even when we come up with a solution, we still have a long road to go in promoting it and reassuring people.”

Mr. Leung said he hoped the project could help to unite the increasingly large Hong Kong diaspora with those who remain in the city itself. Elections could also provide some legitimacy to figures like himself, said Mr. Leung, a former member of the city’s parliament – people who claim to speak on Hong Kong’s behalf but on increasingly tenuous grounds as the votes they once won fade into the past.

“For the community in exile, there are a lot of organizations; they’re all Hong Kongers but they’re not representing Hong Kongers democratically,” he said. “For me, I was elected in 2016 but that doesn’t mean anything in terms of representing people today.”

He added that especially since the shuttering of independent media in Hong Kong, such as Apple Daily and Stand News, two opposition-leaning publications, “there are less and less platforms to link us together and there is an information gap between different Hong Konger communities.”

How successful the parliament project will be remains to be seen. Already within the diaspora there have been disputes over strategy and who can claim to speak for Hong Kong. Several prominent activists who The Globe reached out to about this story did not respond to a request for comment and it is unclear how much popular support the project will be able to build.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine, said exile communities are “often riven by fissures,” but added that if the parliament project is able to foster a spirit of collaboration rather than competition among various groups, there is potential to “maintain or even deepen a sense of Hong Kong identity abroad and keep those who have stayed in Hong Kong from feeling forgotten.

“It is hard to see where this will lead in pragmatic terms, but if it revives in exile the kind of spirited debates that were a valued part of LegCo when it was functioning best … that could be valuable,” he said, referring to the city’s parliament by its abbreviated name.

One major problem exile communities often deal with is that after the initial burst of support in the wake of the event that causes a mass exodus, they become increasingly marginal and unable to lobby for international support.

Mr. Leung acknowledged the Tibetan parliament-in-exile as a model for the Hong Kong project, but Tibet as an issue has struggled to gain traction in Washington and other capitals in recent years. The World Uyghur Congress, which claims to represent people in Xinjiang, was very marginal before a brutal crackdown by China in that region focused attention on the issue and pushed the body to a more prominent position.

The attention the announcement of the parliament project may bring, let alone if an actual election goes ahead, may help push Hong Kong back to the forefront of the international conversation, where it has been supplanted by other recent events, not least the war in Ukraine.

“In the U.S., obviously the momentum is dropping, we can’t lie about this,” Mr. Leung said. “But we at least need to do our part, to let the world know Hong Kongers are still here, we’re still willing to fight for freedom and democracy.”

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