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HONG KONG – Hong Kong residents voted Sunday in by-elections that give opposition supporters the chance to recapture lost ground in a contest measuring voters' appetite for democracy in the semiautonomous Chinese city.
The vote pits pro-Beijing loyalists against opposition candidates competing for four seats in the city's semi-democratic legislature. The seats were left empty when a group of lawmakers were expelled following a 2016 controversy over their oaths, which they used to defy China.
The ejected members included two advocating Hong Kong's independence, something China's President Xi Jinping has called a "red line."
In the vote's main battleground, little known activist Au Nok-hin is competing against pro-Beijing rival Judy Chan. He was enlisted at the last moment after officials disqualified the pro-democracy camp's marquee candidate, 21-year-old Agnes Chow, because she advocated for Hong Kongers to determine their own future.
"This election is not just a normal election; it is a battle between the pro-Beijing camp and the pro-democracy camp," Chow said. It's "also a very important choice for Hong Kong people for whether they want rule of law or rule by the Communist Party."
She said Hong Kong's younger generation hoped for democratic development. But that prospect looks increasingly distant after Xi prepared to abolish term limits, paving the way for him to remain China's president indefinitely.
Chow had intended to stand for the seat vacated after the disqualification of Nathan Law, a fellow member of their Demosisto party who became Hong Kong's youngest-ever lawmaker. The two were among a wave of young activists who emerged from the massive but inconclusive 2014 "Umbrella Movement" demonstrations against Beijing's plans to restrict elections for Hong Kong's top leader.
Under the "one country, two systems" framework, Beijing promised to let Hong Kong maintain wide autonomy and civil liberties following its 1997 handover from Britain. Fears are rising that China's communist leaders are backtracking.
Some 2.1 million voters are eligible to cast ballots for three Legislative Council seats while a fourth is chosen by architects and surveyors. Business and trade groups account for about half the council's 70 seats.
Only one of the disqualified lawmakers, professor Edward Yiu, is joining the race after officials unexpectedly approved his candidacy. Two more seats will be decided later because of ongoing legal action.
Governments and rights groups have expressed concern about the disqualifications.
"The by-elections have been tainted by government-sanctioned political screening which has resulted in the disqualification of elected lawmakers and candidates," British non-government organization Hong Kong Watch said in a report last week.
Results are expected early Monday.