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HONG KONG, Dec 20 (Reuters) – Pro-Beijing candidates swept to victory in an overhauled “patriots”-only legislative election in Hong Kong that critics described as undemocratic, with turnout hitting a record low amid a crackdown on the city’s freedoms by China.

The 30.2% turnout, about half that of the previous poll in 2016, was seen by pro-democracy activists as a rebuke to China after it imposed a broad national security law and sweeping electoral changes to bring the city more firmly under its authoritarian grip.

Almost all seats were taken by pro-Beijing and pro-establishment candidates, some of whom cheered at the vote counting centre and chanted “guaranteed win”.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam told a news conference on Monday the turnout was indeed low but that she was not able to give specific reasons.

“But 1.35 million coming out to vote – it cannot be said that it was not an … election that did not get a lot of support from citizens,” Lam said.

Political analysts say the turnout is a barometer of legitimacy in an election where pro-democracy candidates were largely absent, and a crackdown under the security law and other legislation has jailed scores of democrats who had originally wanted to run, and forced others into exile. read more

Asked if the low turnout meant her party lacked a public mandate, Starry Lee, head of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong that won half of the directly elected seats, said the patriots-only rules would improve governance.

“It needs some time for people to get adapted to this system,” she told reporters.

The election – in which only candidates vetted by the government as “patriots” could run – has been criticised as undemocratic by some foreign governments, rights groups, and mainstream Hong Kong pro-democracy parties, which did not participate in the polls.

Separate joint statements from the foreign ministers of the G7 grouping of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States, as well as the high representative of the European Union, and from Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand expressed “grave concern” over the erosion of Hong Kong’s democracy. read more

The G7 statement said the changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system had undermined the high degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle when it returned to Chinese from British rule in 1997.

Most of the dozen or so candidates who called themselves moderates, including former democratic lawmaker Frederick Fung, succumbed to pro-Beijing rivals.

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