February 28, 2016 / 10:20 AM / 2 years ago

'Radical' candidate in Hong Kong poll exposes underlying tensions

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong residents voted on Sunday in a legislative council by-election, with a “radical” pro-democracy candidate who was arrested in a recent riot running in what is being seen as a barometer of political tension in the financial hub.

Edward Leung, a candidate from the Hong Kong Indigenous, acknowledges supporters during the vote counting of a Legislative Council by-election in Hong Kong, China February 29, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

The poll, to fill a single seat vacated by a former pro-democracy politician, is being watched for signs of growing support for a burgeoning “indigenous” movement that backs more extreme protests, including violence, to push for greater democracy.

Candidates from across the political spectrum contested the poll that was narrowly won by Alvin Yeung of the pro-democracy Civic Party, but most attention focused on Edward Leung, a leader of “Hong Kong Indigenous” and one of the first street activists to make a foray into mainstream politics.

Leung placed third, after Yeung and Holden Chow, a candidate from the city’s biggest pro-Beijing party, with about 15 percent of the 432,000 votes cast, a surprisingly strong showing.

“We, the young generation, are determined to sacrifice ourselves for Hong Kong’s future,” Leung told Reuters on the campaign trail, as supporters held banners reading: “Vote for a revolution”.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that gives it a high degree of autonomy, was rocked by massive protests in 2014 demanding Beijing’s Communist Party leaders grant the city full democracy.

Beijing’s refusal of concessions has embittered a younger generation of activists, including Leung, who have pledged to fight on.

Some of the tension surfaced this month, when hundreds of protesters clashed with police in a night-long riot. Leung was among the dozens arrested in the worst violence on Hong Kong’s streets for years.

While Leung did not ultimately win, his surprisingly strong showing, with 15 percent of the overall vote, will be a concern for Beijing’s Communist Party leaders, who call such indigenous groups “separatists”.

The results also reflect deep anti-China sentiment ahead of a full legislative council poll this year, pitting a pro-democracy camp that now enjoys a slender one-third veto bloc against pro-Beijing and pro-establishment parties.

“We have been called rioters, but these rioters have now won over 60,000 votes,” Leung told reporters after the results. “In September, the entire indigenous movement will prepare to fight into Hong Kong’s political sphere.”

Hong Kong risks seeing further chaos and political uncertainty is hurting the economy, financial secretary John Tsang warned in his budget speech last week.

As one of Asia’s safest cities, known for its strong rule of law passed down from the British, many in the affluent city of 7.3 million remain opposed to any radicalism.

“We need a stable environment,” said a 67-year-old retired businessman, surnamed Chu, who voted for a pro-establishment candidate. “The (radicals) will add uncertainty to Hong Kong.”

Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Alex Richardson and Clarence Fernandez

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