HONG KONG, July 12 - Hundreds of thousands of HongKong citizens queued to cast ballots over the weekend in whatthe Chinese-ruled city's opposition camp says is a symbolicprotest vote against tough national security laws directlyimposed by Beijing. The unofficial poll will decide the strongest pro-democracycandidates to contest Legislative Council elections inSeptember, when they aim to ride a wave of anti-China sentimentstirred by the law to seize control for the first time frompro-Beijing rivals. While the primaries are only for the opposition camp,observers are watching closely as they say the turnout willserve as a test of broader opposition to the law, which criticssay will gravely undermine the city's freedoms. "A high turnout will send a very strong signal to theinternational community, that we Hong Kongers never give up,"said Sunny Cheung, 24, one of a batch of aspiring youngdemocrats out lobbying and giving stump speeches. "And that we still stand with the democratic camp, we stillsupport democracy and freedom." Defying warnings from a senior Hong Kong official that thevote might fall foul of the national security law, residentsyoung and old flocked to over 250 polling stations across thecity, manned by thousands of volunteers. Long queues formed down streets, in residential estates andat businesses-turned-polling stations, with people casting anonline ballot on their mobile phones after having theiridentities verified. Organisers said 500,000 people had voted by late afternoonon Sunday, in the city of 7.5 million. The full turnout isexpected to be announced on Monday morning after two full daysof voting this weekend. The law punishes what China describes broadly as secession,subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with upto life in prison and allows mainland security agents to operateofficially in Hong Kong for the first time. Despite this tactical vote to maximise their chances, somepro-democracy activists fear authorities will try to stop somecandidates from running in September's election. "They can arrest or disqualify any candidate they don't likeunder the national security law without a proper reason," saidOwen Chow, a young democratic "localist" candidate. At a time when Hong Kong authorities have barred publicmarches and rallies for months on end amid coronavirus socialrestrictions, and arrested individuals for shouting slogans andholding up blank sheets of paper, the vote is being seen as acrucial and rare window for populist expression. REUTERS
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