A record 2.2 million people voted in the city-wide legislative election as fears grow Beijing is tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous city.
It was the highest turnout since Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain in 1997 and comes as tensions have reached unprecedented highs over Beijing interference.
Hong Kong’s freedoms were protected for 50 years in the handover agreement, but many believe they are disappearing.
Young activists particularly have lost faith in the “one country, two systems” deal under which the city is governed, which grants it much greater liberties than on the mainland.
That disillusion, exacerbated by the failure of the 2014 rallies to win political reform, has spawned a slew of new parties calling for more autonomy.
As results rolled in, four of the new breed of candidates were confirmed to have won seats, with a fifth also on course for victory.
Among them was Nathan Law, 23, leader of the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” rallies, who came second in his constituency.
Hong Kong is split into five geographical constituencies, each with several seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo), Hong Kong’s lawmaking body.
Law and his new party Demosisto are calling for a referendum on independence, emphasising Hong Kongers’ right to choose whether they want to split from China.
“I think Hong Kongers really wanted change,” Law said, celebrating his win.
“Young people have a sense of urgency when it comes to the future.”
With the pro-democracy camp divided between those who back the idea of possible independence and those who are more wary of the once taboo notion, Law said he would seek unity.
“We have to be united to fight against the (Chinese) Communist Party,” he told AFP.
Law has previously distanced himself from the more radical “localist” movement, which includes activists who are stridently pro-independence and have previously advocated violence.
– ‘Message to Beijing’ –
Young campaigners have been galvanised by a number of incidents which have pointed to increased Beijing interference.
The most high-profile was the disappearance of five city booksellers known for salacious titles about Beijing politicians. They resurfaced in detention on the mainland.
Political analyst Willy Lam said voters had chosen the new guard to “send a strong message to Beijing”.
“Beijing will be very unhappy about the results and its quite possible that they may use this as a pretext to squeeze Hong Kong even harder,” he told AFP.
Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have repeatedly railed against the concept of independence as unconstitutional.
The loudest pro-independence voices were banned by the government from standing in the vote, a move which triggered widespread anger.
However, some localists who were allowed to run called for independence on the campaign trail.
One of them, Yau Wai-Ching of new party Youngspiration, gained a seat saying Hong Kong had “the right to discuss its sovereignty”.
Another Youngspiration candidate, Baggio Leung, who has openly supported independence, also looked likely to win a seat as the count neared completion.
A recount in one remaining constituency held up the final result and was continuing Monday afternoon.
Most established pro-democracy politicians do not support the notion of independence and there were concerns in the democratic camp that new activists would split the vote, triggering overall losses.
If the democrats were to lose four seats, they would forfeit the one-third voting bloc they need to veto bills, stacking the already skewed legislature even more in favour of Beijing.
Results so far show they are likely to hold on to that veto power, although some veteran democrat campaigners were voted out to make way for the new generation.
However, the overall make-up of the LegCo remains weighted towards Beijing under a system that makes it almost impossible for the democracy camp to take a majority.
Thirty of the council’s 70 seats are elected by special interest groups representing a range of businesses and social sectors. Those seats go predominantly to pro-Beijing candidates.
Of 3.7 million voters, 58 percent came out to vote, compared with 53 percent in 2012.