General Issues
Governance & Political Institutions
Human Rights & Civil Rights
Social Welfare
Specific Topics
Public Participation
Political Parties
Administration of Campaigns and Elections
University of Southampton Students
Hong Kong
Archival video footage of the voting and campaigning process during the 2020 primaries
Radio Free Asia news report on the voting process
Start Date
End Date


July 2020 Hong Kong pro-democracy primaries

May 30, 2024 Paolo Spada
May 17, 2024 ebc1n21
May 14, 2024 ebc1n21
General Issues
Governance & Political Institutions
Human Rights & Civil Rights
Social Welfare
Specific Topics
Public Participation
Political Parties
Administration of Campaigns and Elections
University of Southampton Students
Hong Kong
Archival video footage of the voting and campaigning process during the 2020 primaries
Radio Free Asia news report on the voting process
Start Date
End Date

Immediately following the post-protest imposition of the National Security Law in July 2020, the Hong Kong pro-democracy primaries were held, without official authorisation & amid police threats, to select pro-democracy candidates for the thence COVID-postponed LegCo election.

This was an individual project completed for the class ‘PAIR3038 Reinventing Democracy: Innovation, Participation and Power’ (2024) at the University of Southampton, by Ethan Chiu.


1. Problems and Purpose


Hong Kong has always had an acute democratic deficit [1] – not only by the standards of direct democracy, but those of its baseline, representative counterpart. This is in part due to its complicated history as a British colony [2] wherein democratic development was suppressed; a circumstance that has persisted since its 1997 return to China [3] under the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’. That Hongkongers’ general wishes for democratisation have largely gone unheeded – save for a few concessions [4], now reversed – compelled Hong Kong’s pan-democrats and their supporters to further their cause through extra-institutional means. Such instances have included protest [5], pseudo-referendum [6], and strategic voting with intent to maximise the number of pro-democracy candidates in the partially elected Legislative Council (LegCo), which the 2020 Hong Kong pro-democracy primaries precipitated [7].

2. Background History and Context


Societal unrest


In February 2019, the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) proposed an extradition bill wherein fugitives from justice could be sent to stand trial in jurisdictions with which Hong Kong had no formal extradition treaty, including China’s mainland [8]. This caused significant concern among Hong Kong’s population given China’s substandard legal system with regards to the right of a fair trial and general rule of law, alongside fears that extradition could be used as a tool of political repression [9]. Thus, such concern morphed into the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, often erupting into political violence between the two sides [10], epitomised by the tagline ‘Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times’. Ideologically, the protesters’ initial aims of opposing the extradition bill morphed into the wider goals, or five demands [11], the fifth of which pertained to universal suffrage for future legislative and Chief Executive elections alike [12]. In all, none of the protest objectives were satisfied except the scrapping of the extradition bill, which occurred on 23 October 2019 [13]. However, protesters were unassuaged and were in fact emboldened by a pro-democracy landslide in the November 2019 District Council elections [14]. Thus, protesting continued until the enactment of a COVID-19 lockdown in late March 2020.

Authorities clamp down

However, in May 2020 the central government in Beijing announced plans for an imminent National Security Law in the name of curbing the protests [15] and their perceived foreign instigators [16]. The law took effect on 30 June 2020 and the pro-democracy primaries two weeks later occurred in its shadow.


The primaries


The National Security Law’s emphasis on preventing foreign political infiltration exemplifies the governing authorities’ failure to understand the popular will involved in what was a purely grassroots and unorganised protest movement [17]. The same could be said for the primaries themselves, arguably Hong Kong’s last ever exercise of unimpeded popular will given the dramatic narrowing of the political environment post-NSL [18].

Notwithstanding, the bulk of the primary’s organisers (53 in total) were arrested on national security charges on 6 January 2021 and charged the next month [19]. Given that 47 of those charged were well-known pro-democracy advocates, they have assumed the title of the ‘Hong Kong 47’.

3. Organising, Supporting, and Funding Entities


Despite its decentralised nature, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp possessed a significant number of political heavyweights to which it could defer for guidance. Arguably, the most important of which was Benny Tai, a legal scholar who taught at the University of Hong Kong until his firing in 2020 [20], on grounds of a conviction related to Hong Kong’s earlier 2014 ‘Occupy’ protests. Tai opined that the pan-democrats’ greatest chance of enacting their demands was through the ballot box in the upcoming legislative election that was originally scheduled for 6 September 2020. Resultantly, he and others formulated a plan known as ‘Democrats 35+’ [21], aiming to win at least half of the 70 seats in LegCo through strategic voting, thus being able to veto the government’s next budget, forcing Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign. Candidates were to be decided through popular vote in the primaries.

Facing not only governmental apathy, but antipathy, Tai and fellow organisers from the Power for Democracy [7] advocacy group (including its convenor, Andrew Chiu, and fellow democrat Au Nok-hin) had to resort to independent means of organisation and finance. As such, there was considerable crowd fundraising [22] in the run-up, and candidates themselves had to foot a deposit of HK$10,000 (roughly £1,000) [23].

The voting system for the primaries was designed by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) [24] wherein voters would queue up, scan a QR code and fill in personal details, and cast their vote on a bespoke app [7]. Over 590,000 Hongkongers thus voted electronically, with only 20,000 opting for a paper ballot [25].

4. Participant Recruitment and Selection


There are two aspects to this segment: those who stood for election, and those who voted.

The nature of the territory-wide “open primary” – an election before an election – entails that all registered voters over the age of 18 [26] were entitled to vote therein. Voters were divided into five constituencies, mirroring those used in governmentally-sanctioned legislative elections – the last having been conducted in 2016. These constituencies were Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, Kowloon East, New Territories West, and New Territories East. The winning candidates would therefore stand in the upcoming legislative election, contesting these constituencies that provided 35 of LegCo’s seats.

Further, given Hong Kong’s mixed voting system wherein (hitherto that point) thirty LegCo seats were elected by narrow-franchise, technocratic ‘Functional Constituencies’ representing specific industry bodies and individuals, the opportunity to contest these FCs arose. However, only the pan-democrat inclined ‘Health Services’ constituency, representing 40,358 electors, was contested [7].

The final five seats in LegCo at that time were composed of seats belonging to the District Council (Second) functional constituency, known as the “super seats”. The electorate for these seats included every person not eligible to vote for any of the other functional constituencies, lending each Hongkonger two votes (one for a GC, another for an FC) [27].

Regarding criterion to stand in the primaries, candidates had to obtain nominations from 100 registered voters and, as stated above, field a HK$10,000 deposit [7]. Candidates ran on party lists [28], a reflection of the party-list proportional representation system, specifically the ‘largest remainder’ Hare Quota voting system that Hong Kong legislative elections utilise [29]. However, party affiliation was not a prerequisite to run, and independents were welcomed.

The stark openness of the primaries towards those wishing to vote and stand alike means that it satisfied the metric of inclusivity; this being one of the four ‘democratic goods’ promulgated in Graham Smith’s Democratic Innovations [30]. There are five other democratic goods with which inclusivity intersects, these being popular control, considered judgement, transparency, efficiency and transferability.


5. Methods and Tools Used

For a turnout of 600,000 people [25], the entire process was as impromptu as it was successful. In terms of categorisation, it can be stated to be a mixture of e-democracy (by virtue of the mass electronic voting utilised) (see: and direct democracy (see: The primary’s direct democratic credentials derive from the fact the primary itself was not only a means towards an end (i.e., selecting candidates for 2020), but an end in itself – given its function as a sign of disaffection with the authorities’ stalling on democratisation as promised in the Basic Law of Hong Kong’s Articles 45 and 68 [31]. It was, in a way, a single-issue vote on democracy for Hong Kong; and whether to take a soft or hard line on Beijing [32]; it was even branded a ‘referendum’ [28].

Understandably, however, a political primary does not align perfectly with any of the democratic innovations. Further, reports on primary elections and exercises of extra-institutional popular will (whether it be by ballot or other means) are few and far between even here on Participedia. The organisers of the 2020 pro-democracy primary cared relatively little for possible precedents to emulate, reflective of the desperation of a city going over the political tipping point. Even so, many unwitting precedents can be found in existing sources of literature.



In a modern, high-tech society such as Hong Kong’s, the HKPORI’s allocation of an electronic mobile-based voting system was expected (given since-validated fears of police raids of its headquarters [24]), but also revolutionary. Other than the relative lack of a paper trace (though there is a similarly trackable digital trace), benefits of internet voting are stated to include ease of voting, increased accessibility, much reduced costs, and the ability to reduce the formation of queues on election day [33]. Even so, such was the demand to cast a ballot that the latter benefit remained to be seen, much to the joy of the organisers. Moreover, there is the stated benefit of being able to vote at any time – though in this case physical presence was a prerequisite for voting. The synthesis of mobile voting and polling stations served to bridge the gap between harnessing of technological development and empowering the technologically less-abled to still partake in the democratic process.

The comparatively high turnout (13% [25]) that far surpassed expectations is a vindication of the assertion that online voting raises such participation [33]. More interestingly, however, the intense usage of social network sites – such as Hong Kong’s LIHKG blog – spilling over from the protest days [11], can be presumed to have played a major part in voter mobilisation. Such effects on the internet on the democratic process are elucidated in Fung, Gilman and Shkabatur’s Six Models for the Internet + Politics [34].

Perhaps the most applicable revelation in the Six Models is that the fruits of ‘many-to many’ communication tools are most pronounced in nondemocratic countries (and subnational polities under similar repressive regimes) given the flexibility and spontaneity thereof and the difficulty governments face in attempts to clamp down on such online exchanges. It must be stated that China’s comprehensive ‘Great Firewall’ does not yet envelop Hong Kong [35], rendering Hong Kong’s Police Force – at that time – on the back foot with regards to the interception of communications. This was even more pronounced given tech-savvy Hongkongers’ preference for encrypted modes of communication such as Telegram [36].


Direct democracy

Although not a bona fide exercise of direct democracy in its governmentally-sanctioned, explicitly single-issue sense, the open primaries assumed an air of direct democracy – given that the only ‘referenda’ to have ever occurred in Hong Kong have been unofficial and piggybacking general purpose votes. An example is the Five Constituencies Referendum of 2010 [6] wherein one pro-democracy LegCo member from each of Hong Kong’s five constituencies resigned over a governmentally sponsored electoral ‘reform’ package. The legislators intended to stand in the resultant by-elections, stating that a vote for them was a vote against the package that they perceived as falling short of genuine universal suffrage. A parallel can be drawn between that exercise, and the positioning of the primaries as giving the government the ‘middle finger’.

General voting mechanism

The post-1997 switch from single-member plurality (first-past-the-post) to Hare Quota proportional representation across multi-member constituencies [37] precipitated a sea change in campaigning strategies for both sides of Hong Kong’s political spectrum. The Hare Quota is intensely problematic in that it punishes the formation of broad party lists and electoral blocs alike [38], as opposed to the alliance-inducting effects of the predominant D’Hondt method. While a clear deficit from the democratic perspective, stunting the development of ‘effective legislative parties’ was a clear prerogative of the governing authorities in doing so [39]. Nevertheless, and in the true spirit of democratic innovation, Hong Kong’s pan-democrats have seen a window of opportunity in that under the closed-list Hare Quota, candidates can win a seat in LegCo with as little as 6% of the popular vote [40]. As a result, the open primaries encouraged the submission of many lists with the aim of narrowing them down into an effervescent range of electoral lists ready to be fielded in the upcoming LegCo election.

6. What Went On: Process, Interaction and Participation

In the run up to the vote, the organisers of the open primary had to source locations for polling stations, to be equally spread across Hong Kong. Given the previous pro-democracy landslide in the local elections of November 2019, there lay a plethora of sympathetic district councillors offering their offices as polling locations. However, Hong Kong’s Home Affairs Bureau issued a stern warning that usage thereof was in direct contravention of regulations prohibiting councillors from using their ward offices for non-District Council purposes. Additionally, Hong Kong’s Housing Authority decreed that the lease agreements covering ward offices in their premises expressly forbade such actions, threatening eviction [41]. Thus, Hong Kong’s various ‘yellow businesses’ (those supporting the pro-democracy movement) came to the rescue, offering that their premises be utilised as polling stations [7]. In all, over 250 polling stations were established [42].

Meanwhile, HKPORI continued polling Hongkongers; though they were interrupted by a police raid the day before, facing the phony charge of ‘dishonest use of a computer’ [24]. Adding insult to injury, HKPORI was also subjected to numerous hacking attempts. Such was the extra-institutionality of the open primaries that the Chinese and Hong Kong governments repeatedly branded the primaries “illegal” and in violation of the National Security Law [43], branding it a foreign-influenced attempt at ‘colour revolution’ and ‘subverting state power’. Further, authorities dismissed it as having neither constitutional basis nor binding effect. A more tangible effect of the National Security Law was the instant disbandment of localist groups such as Joshua Wong’s Demosisto a few minutes after the law came into effect on 30 June 2020 [44]. Consequently, the localists banded together under the banner of the ‘Independent Localists’ or ‘Localist Resistance Camp’.

Organisers additionally had to contend with Coronavirus restrictions on gatherings of over fifty people. However, this did little to deter the popular will.

The campaigning period was dynamic and vibrant, pitting more moderate pan-democrats against sharper, localist forces [32]. The localists, who ultimately came out on top in the polls, were more hostile towards the Chinese government and the perceived ‘Mainlandisation’ of Hong Kong with regards to heavy southbound immigration, the displacement of Cantonese as Hong Kong’s pre-eminent language, and the imposition of alien values in the form of undemocratic laws. Their grouping included those candidates most willing to stymie the government’s upcoming budget.

Originally stated to begin at 9am and close at 9pm on both Saturday and Sunday (11th and 12th), voting commencement was postponed to 12pm Saturday in order to increase the security of the process. It was these efforts that guaranteed an otherwise seamless voting procedure. By the final closing of the polls, turnout had vastly surpassed the organisers’ targets. The government had been sent a firm message.

7. Influence, Outcomes and Effects

In ascertaining whether the pro-democracy primaries were successful, a line must be drawn between impacts and outcomes. The former pertains to the longer-term, broader effects; while the latter concerns the immediate, shorter-term effects which were more measurable.


The immediate outcome of the 2020 Hong Kong pro-democracy primary was a sweeping localist victory [45] wherein despite winning one position less that the traditional democrats’ grand total of 16, the biggest emergent bloc was the ‘Independent Localists’ with a total of 12 candidates elected to stand for LegCo. One of the biggest upsets was the failure of veteran democrat, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, of the League of Social Democrats, to get elected, coming only ninth in the constituency in which he stood [46]. Leung, pictured campaigning, features at the top of this article.

Nevertheless, this was at no detriment to the organisers’ aims as the superior turnout vested the winners and entire movement with increased democratic legitimacy, empowered to head into the upcoming LegCo emboldened and united. The fact that the campaigning, vote, and resultant count was able to proceed smoothly and robustly is proof of the outcome of the vote itself being a resounding success.




If Benny Tai’s aim of the pan-democrats winning 35+ seats in LegCo [47] is to be used as a measure of success, then the open primary fell flat on its face and was an abject failure. This is ultimately due to events completely out of the primary organisers’ hands. A few weeks after the poll, on 31 July 2020, the Hong Kong government postponed the legislative election that had been set for 6 September 2020, pushing it back to 5 September 2021, citing Coronavirus and concerns over electoral integrity [48]. This took the pro-democracy camp by surprise and accusations were levelled that the government was obstructing the popular will and acting unconstitutionally [49].

For the candidates and organisers, the outcome was even more dire. The arrest of over 50 pro-democracy figures on the morning of 6 January 2021 [50] represented the end of the road for the democrats’ ambitions of achieving their legislative majority, let alone of campaigning. Forty-seven of them were charged with ‘conspiracy to commit subversion’ on 28 February [19]. Thirty-one, including Tai, pled guilty, with sixteen pleading not guilty. The latter’s verdict is expected at the end of May 2024 [51] with the handing down of (custodial) sentences to follow.

Third and finally, on 11 March 2021 China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) decided to ‘reform’ Hong Kong’s electoral system [52] by simultaneously increasing the number of seats in LegCo from 70 to 90 while reducing the geographical constituency-elected seats from 35 to 20 and abolishing the five District Council “super seats”. In its place, 40 seats were to be elected by a 1500-strong Election Committee while the 30 Functional Constituency seats remained the same in number. However, the pro-democracy ‘Health Services’ functional constituency was merged with its more establishmentarian ‘Medical’ counterpart, further reducing the now-largely jailed pan-democrats’ influence. The 20 GC seats were to represent ten new constituencies, with the two winners from each being elected by single non-transferrable vote, as opposed to the Hare Quota. Further, only verified ‘patriots’ would be permitted to run for any office [53]. Hong Kong had slipped from a hybrid regime to an autocracy; and pan-democrats and localists alike were now barred from holding any office.

In sum, only one ray of hope shines through the cracks. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists have been afforded considerable international governmental and media attention [54] and Hong Kong’s remaining democrats, now exiled and on the run from police, continue to fight for democracy from overseas [55].


8. Analysis and Lessons Learned

Graham Smith’s Democratic Innovations [30] begins with a reference to Ricardo Blaug’s [56] division of such ‘democratic devices’ into those pertaining to incumbent democracy and critical democracy. The former involves typically-governmentally mandated attempts to maximise democratic legitimacy and relations with the public through processes of the government’s own making. The latter, however, resists such overtures (or lack thereof) and strives to force democratic change from the ground up, aligning well with the aim of the open primaries. While Blaug takes more of an interest in such extra-institutional forms of democratic innovation, Smith carves out space for such innovations, defined as ‘institutions that have been specifically designed to increase and deepen citizen participation in the political decision-making process’ [57], that occur within the established political system. Further, much of the literature on democratic innovations presupposes that the bulk thereof occur in developed industrial, or post-industrial democracies. Here Hong Kong is the enigma; hyper-capitalist and uber-developed it may be, but acquainted with democracy? Not so much. Thus, the extra-institutional organisers of the 2020 Hong Kong pro-democracy primaries did not do so in order to re-experience democracy, but simply to experience it. The extent to which such experience occurred is best measured against Smith’s six democratic goods, briefly mentioned above. The goods are as follows: inclusion, considered judgement, popular control, transparency, efficiency, and transferability [58].

Inclusion has been briefly mentioned prior and was arguably the good most satisfied during the open primary, due to its wholly accessible nature wherein every citizen could vote (and stand, provided they reached the threshold of signatures with deposit posted). If one was registered to vote in HKSAR elections, one could vote in the primaries. The benefits of such procedural openness are elucidated by Smith [59], whose concerns about unequal participation – put to paper by Anne Phillips [60] – were combated head-on in this case by virtue of the primaries’ explicit catering to those traditionally ignored by the government, chiefly Hong Kong’s pro-democracy silent majority [61]. And regarding incentives to partake, it can be stated that the authorities in their opposition did most of the work; studies have shown that the demos can be ‘fired up’ when presented with the opportunity to undertake Rebellious Collective Action [62].

Mobilisation-wise, the aforementioned ‘online’ campaigning period eschewed many of the attributes of Networking Democracy, as stated by Loader and Mercia [63]. These include the ability of primary voters to act independently of the pro-Beijing mass media mainframe, challenging those discourses – disrupting them, even. Such digital fruits engendered a popular mobilisation wherein candidates could be debated, ideologies unpacked, and voters energised. However, the e-democratic credentials of the campaigning and voting process alike presumably fell prey to the ‘digital divide’ [64] between technological ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ – specifically on age, over class, lines. It has been discovered that 36.3% of elderly Hongkongers are essentially technologically illiterate [65]. Notwithstanding, the opposing factors of the provision of paper ballots, alongside elderly Hongkongers’ typical support for Beijing [66], rendered many older persons either apathetic (even opposed), or, suitably accommodated for. For all demographics, the placing of the primary over a weekend was a welcome development, mitigating time constraints on participants.

The building of knowledge-based capacity – equally pertaining to considered judgement – was fulfilled through the vociferousness of Hong Kong’s electoral campaigns [67] that are aided by Hong Kong’s small geographical size. At that time, Hong Kong’s political candidates were well-known for comprehensive door-knocking sprees, street booths, all accompanying their presence on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and the LIHKG blogging platform. Even so, such capacity building was not paramount due to the primaries’ de facto functioning as a single-issue vote (a direct democratic credential) that drew on Hongkongers’ lived experiences vis-à-vis life under Chinese rule. The lack of those possessing more positive views of Chinese rule in the primary – by virtue of its self-selecting nature and openly pro-democracy outlook – did hinder the development of considered judgement. This is because the primaries were, by design, an echo chamber, hindering the development of an ‘enlarged mentality’ [68]. Furthermore, the whistle-stop nature of the voting procedure itself – devoid of the tutelage one may find in, say, a Minipublic – rendered inter-voter deliberation flawed. Again, this may just be reflective of the low-input, low-outcome nature of the primary when compared to a binding referendum or participatory budgeting process.

Popular control is another spurious measure with respect to the open primary due to its wholly encapsulating, but wholly unrecognised, nature. Arguably, the pro-democracy primary’s level of popular control withers as one progresses along the ‘policy stage’ model. Smith [69] notes the four stages as problem definition, option analysis, option selection, and implementation. To this extent, Benny Tai and Power for Democracy were able to define the problem as Beijing’s influence, manifested in the pro-establishment majority in LegCo that they sought to reverse; an aim to which the public did not seem averse at all. Further, the vying for power of moderates versus localists presented the opportunity to analyse the options; did the public want to take on the central government with the carrot, or the stick? However, the option selection and implementation phases were non-existent as the authorities did not cede [68] any power to the organisers, instead opting for political persecution and the shifting of electoral goalposts. In this sense, implementation went completely unsatisfied.


One prerogative the organisers did have was transparency. By granting system design to HKPORI, Hong Kong’s premier polling institute, the possibility of manipulating outcomes in-house was negated. Such was the availability of the data pertaining to the vote that Hong Kong prosecutors have been having a field day citing it during the Hong Kong 47’s trial for subversion, branding it an attempt at laam chau [70] – destruction aimed at the government.

Finally, the primaries were starkly efficient for a plethora of reasons. Firstly, the establishment of a consummate election, recognised as free and fair, independent of any governmental or ‘big business’ help is a remarkable feat. Resultantly, the process was, and had to be, cheap; given that it was primarily funded through crowdfunding. Furthermore, it was not time consuming insofar as multi-day exercises of deliberative democracy can be. The co-option of pro-democracy “yellow economy” businesses and District Council officers represents a spontaneity that is replicable the world over. Therefore, it can be stated that transferability-wise, the 2020 Hong Kong pro-democracy primaries can be emulated anywhere, and in any place – arguably to better results. Specifically, had such an exercise of popular will have occurred in an entrenched liberal democracy with governmental help, funding, and encouragement, the effects would have been a hundredfold. One hopes that this sets a precedent for a brand new, independent, democratic innovation.


9. See Also


i.              Participedia entry on online voting (a form of e-democracy):

ii.            Participedia entry on direct democracy:

iii.           Participedia entry relating to the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests:

iv.           Another Participedia entry relating to the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests:



10. References


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11. External Links

This Participedia entry is dedicated to Hong Kong's long road to democracy, yet to be achieved.