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Hong Kong's Pro-Democracy Parties Sweep Local Elections

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, residents were able to send a different kind of message to their government today. More than 2.9 million people cast ballots in Hong Kong's district elections. That's a turnout rate of more than 71%, and the early results show massive support for pro-democracy parties. NPR's Emily Feng is there, and she's with us now to tell us more about what this all means.

Emily, thanks so much for joining us.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So we typically wouldn't focus on district elections in Hong Kong because, as I understand it, these councils focus on hyper-local issues like bus stops and noise. But this comes after months of protest. Do you think these elections took on a larger meaning to people?

FENG: Absolutely. As you said, normally these elections are seen as minor events because these councilors advise government. They don't actually make any laws. But this year, the elections have been seen as a way to send a direct message to not only the Hong Kong government but to Beijing about how the Hong Kong public feels regarding these ongoing protests. It's still too early to say whether the various pro-democracy parties here have a majority among the 452 district councilor seats that were up for election. But so far, there have been some remarkable upsets and victories among first-time pro-democracy candidates over their much more established, more pro-Beijing candidates.

I think the most notable upset so far has been the loss of Junius Ho. He lost his district seat. Junius Ho is infamous here in Hong Kong because he was seen shaking hands with thugs that attacked protesters earlier this year. But he's very well-established in his constituency, and so that's been a major upset for the pro-Beijing community here. Among some of the more well-known victors here tonight are well-known democracy activists who got their start in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. So you see this clear historical thread here between previous political movements and the protests today.

MARTIN: Now we've been taking note of that turnout number. Seventy-one percent seems pretty high, especially here in the U.S., and especially for a local race. Is that high in Hong Kong? And is that high for elections for these offices?

FENG: Extremely. I mean, just for reference, the last district elections in 2015 had a 47% turnout, so we've seen this huge jump this year. And what's really astonishing is more people voted in this election for positions that are essentially community representatives who have no policymaking abilities than in any other election ever in Hong Kong history.

MARTIN: So what are some of the other things that you'll be looking at as this movement goes forward, as this story continues to unfold?

FENG: Well, longer term, I'm looking at legislative change. I mean, district councilors don't make any policy themselves, but they do make up just under 10% of a separate body that chooses the city's top leader. The next leader is supposed to be chosen in 2022, and so a pro-democracy majority in the district council could tip that selection.

But more immediately, I'll be looking for a change in tenor of the protests. Lately, they've become much more scattered. They've become more violent, and they've become much more spontaneous because of the police suppression of protests has become more targeted. We might see now with so much public support in these elections for protests that marches might become more peaceful again. We might see larger ones. And we might see more regular occurrences of civil disobedience. I'll be heading back out into the Hong Kong streets in a few hours, and so I'll keep everyone updated.

MARTIN: All right. We appreciate that. That's NPR's Emily Feng in Hong Kong. Emily, thank you so much.

FENG: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.