A year ago demonstrators stormed Hong Kong’s de facto parliament, spray-painting the chamber with political slogans and defacing government emblems in an unprecedented act of defiance.
“We chose the most symbolic gesture: taking back the legislature in our own way,” said Brian Leung Kai-ping, a PhD student who joined in the invasion of the territory’s Legislative Council.
The city’s pro-democracy politicians seemed poised to turn that symbolic takeover into legitimate control of the chamber in September’s local elections on the back of a wave of anti-government sentiment, according to analysts.
But Beijing’s decision last week to impose a national security law on Hong Kong, with penalties of up to life imprisonment for crimes such as secession or collaborating with foreign parties, may have dashed such hopes.
China said the law was needed to suppress subversive elements in the protests and restore stability. That has thrown the September election into doubt, with some fearing Beijing will use the tough new rules to disqualify democratic candidates.
But the law’s sweeping nature threatens to allow Beijing to run roughshod over the territory’s semi-autonomous institutions, including the legislature, potentially undermining the significance of an election win for the democrats, according to analysts.
Until plans for the national security law were first announced in May, Hong Kong’s democratic candidates had been riding high on their sweeping victory in local elections last year, when they secured 17 of the city’s 18 districts.
The city’s alliance of democratic parties had stood a good chance of winning a near majority or even a majority in the elections for Legco, where the voting structure heavily favours pro-government parties. Victory would give the democrats the power to enact laws and approve or reject the government budget.
In extreme circumstances, they could even try to force the resignation of the chief executive — a result that would enrage Beijing. They currently occupy about one-third of the seats in the legislature.
“This is the closest we might come to a majority compared with previous elections,” said Alvin Yeung, leader of the pro-democratic Civic party and a Legco member. “Assuming the election is held.”
“We would exercise the full powers of Legco,” said Dennis Kwok, another Civic party lawmaker, outlining what they would do if they won. “We could investigate stuff, we could hold the government to account.”
To win, the democrats would need to successfully overcome Legco’s fiendishly complicated voting system that awards 30 of the 70 seats to mainly pro-government special interest groups.
“Even if they [democrats] don’t get 36 seats [a majority], even if they get 33, the margin is so narrow the government will find it more difficult than in the past to get support in Legco,” said Jasper Tsang, a pro-Beijing politician and a former president of Legco.
However, Beijing would be unlikely to allow a democrat majority, analysts said. After the last election in 2016, Hong Kong authorities disqualified democratic candidates for allegedly not upholding electoral law.
With the imposition of the national security law, Beijing could take even stronger action against democratic politicians under the vaguely defined legislation.
Just speaking out against the national security law could be enough for disqualification, said Tam Yiu-chung, the territory’s sole delegate on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament in Beijing.
Mr Tam argued that legislators had a duty to back the national security law now that it was part of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. “If you go against the national law, how can you make people trust that you actually support the Basic Law and are loyal to the People’s Republic of China?” he asked.
Some analysts said the only powers now capable of checking Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong were the US and its allies. Washington is threatening to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for implementing the law while the UK is offering a pathway to citizenship for millions of Hong Kongers. Australia is preparing a similar programme.
“Local Hong Kong politics really is not going to affect anything in Hong Kong these days. The key is whether China and the US will escalate or de-escalate the new cold war,” said Brian Fong, a political scientist.
Yet some campaigners still see participation in the election as a way to rebel.
“If we get in, we will have more resources and a platform to promote our thoughts,” activist Ventus Lau said. If they were banned from running that would show even more plainly that democracy in Hong Kong was dead, he said.
Mr Leung, who returned to the US after the storming of Legco last July, to continue his studies, said the election would still be important for maintaining opposition. Hong Kongers needed to steel themselves for a long struggle.
“The winter of civil society is coming. We will have to weather it,” he said.