While councillors do not make laws and instead fulfill neighborhood duties—overseeing community issues such as trash removal, the upkeep of parks, and in some areas, the nuisance of foraging wild boars—they do have some citywide powers. Five seats are reserved on Hong Kong’s 70-person legislature for district-council members and, crucially, district councillors make up about a tenth of the 1,200-member election committee that chooses Hong Kong’s chief executive. The enormous gains secured by the pro-democracy camp would not only allow it to be a “significant stakeholder” in the 2022 chief executive’s election; they also give the group power over local budgetary decisions and allocations of funding, as well as access to resources, such as offices and assistants that could help build the grass roots of the movement, Yuen said.
But just as important as the tangible gains made by those demanding political reform here was the symbolism of Sunday’s vote. After months of restrictions placed on protesters—from police declining to approve marches to an attempted ban on the use of face masks by demonstrators—both the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps saw the election as an opportunity to cement their dueling narratives of the past six months. The protests turned what would normally be “very low key, second-order, even third-order elections,” into a “de facto referendum,” Kenneth Chan, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and a former pro-democracy lawmaker, told me in advance of the election.
Read: Meet the spiritual leader of the Hong Kong protests
Even before the polls opened at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday for the 15-hour contest, lines of voters began snaking through housing estates and down sidewalks, a sight normally unseen in Hong Kong. The protests, though largely on hold for the weekend, were an inescapable presence and permeated every part of election day. In the Wan Chai neighborhood, hundreds of voters stood opposite the Hong Kong Police headquarters, where water barricades still lined the street and graffiti decrying the police had been haphazardly painted over after the building was targeted by protesters on multiple occasions. A worker near the line of waiting voters mixed concrete on the sidewalk, patching up holes left behind by bricks ripped up by protesters to hurl at police.
“Today we are trying to do the best we can for Hong Kong right now. Every little step matters,” said Kitty Mak, 26, who hustled to get in line after a friend warned her of growing wait times. “It is a protest vote against an authoritarian government; we cannot tolerate this government’s policies anymore.” Behind her, another voter, who asked to be identified only by his surname, Lam, said the protests had jolted people into greater political engagement. “A few years ago, people thought if they earn enough money, it’s fine, or, Politics doesn’t affect me,” he said. “Politics are now a part of every facet of our lives.”