Alvin Yeung (C), a candidate from Civic Party, celebrates with supporters after winning the Legislative Council by-election in Hong Kong on Monday.   REUTERS/BOBBY YIP
Alvin Yeung (C), a candidate from Civic Party, celebrates with supporters after winning the Legislative Council by-election in Hong Kong on Monday. REUTERS/BOBBY YIP

HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s prodemocracy camp won a key by-election on Monday, with one young activist who advocates independence from China also taking tens of thousands of votes in closely watched polls at a time of rising political tension.

While it was a candidate from one of the established prodemocracy parties who won the election, the results showed growing support for the more radical "localist" movement, which advocates far greater autonomy from Beijing amid rising concern over Chinese interference. The movement grew out of the failure of prodemocracy rallies in 2014 to win concessions on political reform and advocates more radical tactics to force change.

Student Edward Leung, one of the leaders of localist group Hong Kong Indigenous, took more than 66,000 votes in the election held on Sunday in New Territories East — far more than observers expected.

That secured him third place behind pro-Beijing candidate Holden Chow in second and Alvin Yeung of the established pro-democracy Civic Party who won the seat. Mr Yeung took 160,880 votes to Mr Chow’s 150,329 in the by-election, triggered when a prominent pro-democracy politician stood down.

The seat in the mainly middle-class constituency in the north of Hong Kong is traditionally a democratic stronghold.

Mr Leung’s slice of the vote was an indication of widening sympathy for localists, some of whom were involved in clashes with police earlier in February which left more than 100 injured.

Mr Leung is currently facing a rioting charge for his involvement. He said his group must be taken more seriously after the election result.

"In the past, the government, political parties, mainstream media have billed us as rioters. Now we have a mandate from 66,000 voters," Mr Leung said.

Winning candidate Mr Yeung has distanced himself from Mr Leung’s radicalism, but said the result should make the government sit up and listen.

"The number of votes obtained by myself and Edward Leung is not trivial. It is reflecting a serious governance issue," he said.

Hong Kong was handed back to China by former colonial power Britain in 1997 and its freedoms are protected by a 50-year agreement. But there is growing concern those freedoms are under threat as China seeks to stamp its authority on the semi-autonomous territory.

Political analyst Willy Lam said the prodemocracy camp must have been "very reassured" by the Civic Party’s win in the face of the failure of the prodemocracy rallies.

But he added it was the localist movement that was gathering momentum.

"Hong Kong Indigenous garnered a lot more votes than people expected," said Mr Lam. "The fact they did so well shows these nativist ‘Hong Kong first’ sentiments have grown amongst young people," he added.

Mr Lam said it could pave the way for more localist wins at legislative elections in September, in which student leader Joshua Wong’s prodemocracy campaign group Scholarism will also stand for office.

The pro-Beijing camp casts democracy campaigners as a threat to stability and prosperity in Hong Kong. Beijing has dismissed localists as "separatists" — a label they do not shy away from.