Hong Kong voters went to the polls on Sunday for the first time since an electoral overhaul and a sweeping national security law were imposed on the city.
The Legislative Council election – in which only candidates deemed by the government to be "patriots" can run – has been criticised by some activists, foreign governments and rights groups.
Hong Kong government leaders have been urging people to vote, saying the poll is representative. They insist the overhaul, like the security law imposed last year, was needed to ensure stability after protracted protests that rocked the Asian financial hub in 2019.
Turnout has been at the core of election debates, with the government on Saturday sending blanket text messages to Hong Kong residents urging people to vote and some critics calling on people to stay away as a protest.
It is a crime in Hong Kong to incite someone not to vote or to cast an invalid vote.
Early indications suggested turnout was lower than the last legislative election in 2016, according to Reuters witnesses.
After four hours of voting, government figures showed 12.08 percent of the electorate had voted, down from 14.9 percent at the same point four years ago. The previous election turnout was 58 percent, while the 43.6 percent in 2000 was the lowest since Britain returned the city to Chinese rule in 1997.
Some of the first to vote as polls opened at 8:30 a.m. (0030 GMT) said they were keen to do their civic duty to ensure stability.
Some refusing to vote
University language teacher Tam Po-chu, 79, said she hoped the new council would be responsive to the public. "There's no use if they do not think of the Hong Kong people," she said.
Others said they would not be voting, expressing anger at the changes that some said had turned the poll into a "selection" and the legislature into a "puppet".
"Refusing to vote is apparently the only way for us to express our grievances," said Peter, 21, a university student.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, among the first to vote, told reporters at a polling station in the suburban Mid-Levels district that the government "had not set any target" on the turnout rate, and she was not aware of any set by the Chinese leadership.
Beijing’s Liaison Office in the city did not did not respond to Reuters requests for comment on voter turnout.
Before Lam spoke, several protesters from the League of Social Democrats opposition group chanted demands nearby for full universal suffrage and waved a banner reading "forced to be silent ... spirit of freedom, vote with your conscience".
Security was tight around the city, with 10,000 police and some 40,000 government election workers deployed. Police chief Raymond Siu told reporters before the voting that the mass deployment was to ensure balloting at hundreds of polling stations across the city would be held safely and smoothly.
Chief Secretary John Lee, a former security chief, urged people to turn out, saying those excluded were "traitors" who wanted the vote to fail.
In the run-up to the election, more than 10 people were arrested for allegedly inciting people to cast blank ballots, including people who had reposted social media posts from others, according to government statements.
Sweeping changes to electoral system
China's parliament in March announced sweeping changes to Hong Kong's electoral system, including reducing the number of directly elected seats and setting up a vetting committee to screen all potential candidates, saying only "patriots" may administer the city. More than a third of the seats will now be selected by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
An ongoing crackdown on Hong Kong under the China-imposed national security law has also jailed scores of democrats, while civil society groups have disbanded.
Unlike previous polls, pro-democracy candidates are largely absent, having declined to run, gone into exile or been jailed. Some overseas activists and foreign governments, including the United States, say the electoral changes have reduced democratic representation in the city.
The Chinese and Hong Kong authorities reject such criticisms, saying the electoral changes and a national security law that took effect last year are needed to enhance the city's governance and restore stability after the 2019 protests.
Of the 153 candidates contesting the 90 legislative seats, around a dozen say they are moderates who are not aligned with the pro-Beijing or pro-establishment camp.