Hong Kong (AFP) -
Hong Kongers turned out in historically low numbers to pick lawmakers under China's new 'patriots only' rules that dramatically cut directly elected seats, official results showed Monday, in a stinging rebuke to Beijing.
Figures showed just 30 percent of the electorate cast ballots, the lowest rate both of the period since the city's 1997 handover to China and the British colonial era.
It was the first legislature poll under a new political blueprint China imposed on Hong Kong in response to massive and often violent pro-democracy protests two years ago.
Beijing has responded with a sweeping national security law that criminalises much dissent and political reforms to remove anyone deemed unpatriotic.
But in the first public test of the new system, most Hong Kongers stayed away from polling stations, taking advantage of free public transport for the day to fill shopping malls, hiking trails and beaches instead.
Authorities recently made it illegal to organise or incite voting boycotts but many prominent democracy activists who have fled overseas issued such calls on social media.
Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Hong Kong's Baptist University, described Sunday's turnout as 'hugely embarrassing' for the government.
'Most pro-democracy voters decided to stay away, to express their disapproval of this kind of election by not turning up,' he told AFP.
At the last legislature polls in 2016, half the seats were directly elected and many of those standing were prominent democracy activists who are now jailed, have fled overseas or been disqualified.
Turnout for those elections was 58 percent.
- Loyalty vetting -
Hong Kong has never been a full democracy, the source of years of growing protests. But Beijing's latest system gives residents even less of a say in who runs their city.
Under the new rules, candidates have to be vetted for their patriotism and political loyalty and only 20 of the 90 legislature seats are directly elected.
The largest chunk of seats -- 40 -- are picked by a committee of 1,500 staunch Beijing loyalists.
The remaining 30 are chosen by reliably pro-Beijing committees that represent special-interest and industry groups.
Of the 153 candidates who made it through the vetting process, only 11 were identified as 'centrist' or 'non-establishment' by local media.
Preliminary results from overnight counting showed none of those candidates had won enough votes.
The result will be a legislature stacked with government loyalist that looks much closer to the Chinese mainland's rubber stamp law-making bodies.
'The tension between the authorities and the people will remain in place for a long time while the legislators won't be mediators because they have to toe Beijing's line,' Chung Kim-wah, from the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, told AFP.
The result is a blow for Hong Kong and Chinese officials who called on residents to embrace a new political system that they say will restore order.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam sought to manage expectations ahead of Sunday, telling state media last week that a low turnout could indicate 'the government is doing well and its credibility is high'.
Independent polling places her public approval rating at around 36 percent.
- Beijing visit -
Lam's office announced she would travel to Beijing on Monday evening for three days of meetings with the central government.
Chinese state media portrayed the elections as a glowing success.
The official Xinhua news agency said the vote had crushed 'lies from external forces while demonstrating the true will of the people in the Chinese city'.
Ta Kung Pao newspaper, which answers to a Chinese government office that sets Hong Kong policy, described the vote as 'the most successful one since handover'.
Chinese and Hong Kong authorities were infuriated by boycott calls made by a growing number of overseas activists who have fled Hong Kong but maintain large social media followings.
'People do not want to vote for a rubber-stamp chamber and pretend everything is all right,' Nathan Law, a former lawmaker now living in Britain and who is wanted by Hong Kong authorities, tweeted.
In the run-up to Sunday, 10 people were arrested under a new law that criminalises inciting boycotts, mostly for social media posts.
They also issued arrest warrants for overseas activists who made such calls and threatened Western media outlets with prosecution for editorials critical of the new political system.