A pro-democracy protester carrying a cartoon of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is shepherded by police before Lam arrives to vote in a Legislative Council by-election on March 11, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Bobby Yip

Hongkongers went to the polls in controversial Legislative Council by-elections on Sunday, with early voting in one constituency marked by  a scuffle when Beijing loyalists surrounded a pro-democracy candidate.

The city’s pro-democracy camp is hoping to claw back seats following a campaign that has once again exposed deep political divisions. The vote comes as China takes an increasingly robust line against any challenges to its sovereignty.

Agnes Chow, a young activist, was barred from standing because her party promotes self-determination for Hong Kong, which is currently semi-autonomous from China. Moreover, these by-elections were prompted by the disqualification from office of a handful of radical lawmakers who were elected last year but contrived to insert protests into their oaths of office.

More than 2.1 million Hongkongers are eligible to cast their votes across four of six seats vacated by those disqualifications. Early reports suggested there was a higher-than-usual turnout.

At around 9am, according to the South China Morning Post, a group of Beijing loyalists wearing sunglasses and masks surrounded the pro-democracy Hong Kong Island candidate Au Nok-hin at a housing complex in the Aberdeen area of the city.

“You are a traitor who betrayed your country! Why don’t you go to Taiwan instead?” the group are said to have shouted.

Au was accompanied by Chow and by other leading pro-democracy activists, one of whom – Joshua Wong – was reportedly barged. Wong, who was one of the main student leaders during mass demonstrations in 2014, told reporters: “When there is a restriction on freedom of speech and we face more suppression on civil disobedience and protest in the streets, it proves that it’s more necessary for us to vote.”

Beijing finds the emergence of activists advocating self-determination, or independence, for Hong Kong, extremely irritating.

Pro-establishment politician Judy Chan, who is standing against Au – a district councillor who stepped in to contest the Hong Kong Island seat after Chow was disallowed, said: “The by-election is a chance for the silent majority, who are tired of a politicized Hong Kong, who detest those who humiliate the country, to come out and tell those politicians that Hong Kong has no room for them.”

“The era of quarreling should be ended. Advocates of Hong Kong independence and self-determination will cost the city a heavy toll”

For his part, Au told reporters: “The election is not just about selecting me as a candidate, it is also about voting for justice.”

The six lawmakers were retrospectively barred from office by Hong Kong’s high court after Beijing issued a special “interpretation” of the city’s mini-constitution stipulating legislators had to take their oath “solemnly and sincerely” or face being banned.

Pro-independence lawmakers had inserted expletives and waved “Hong Kong is not China” banners during their swearing in. Others added phrases supporting the democracy movement.

The pro-democracy camp has come up against increasing pressure since the failure of the Umbrella Movement to win political reform, with some leading activists jailed on protest-related charges.

Political analyst Dixon Sing said losing any one of the four by-election seats would be a further blow. “It would only add to the disappointment and the loss of faith,” he said.

Only half of Hong Kong’s legislature is elected, with the remainder being selected by traditionally pro-establishment interest groups. Of the chamber’s 70 seats, the democracy camp currently holds 24, only just clinging on to the one-third it needs to wield power of veto over bills it does not like.

Casting his vote early, the city’s former chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, urged the public to vote for candidates who are “constructive, pragmatic and true-heartedly serving Hong Kong”.

He added: “The era of quarreling should be ended. Advocates of Hong Kong independence and self-determination will cost the city a heavy toll.”

Veteran democrats, meanwhile, urged residents to go out and vote to resist Beijing’s tightening grip. “It is not just a by-election,” said pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo. “It’s a fight between good and evil.”

With reporting from Agence France-Presse

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