Pro-democracy campaigners Joshua Wong, left, Agnes Chow, third from left, and Nathan Law campaign for by-election candidate Au Nok-hin, center, for the Legislative Council by-elections in Hong Kong on March 11, 2018.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

Hong Kongers headed to the polls Sunday to replace four lawmakers kicked out of the city’s legislature in a vote seen as a chance for the city’s beleaguered democracy movement to regain lost ground.

Fifteen candidates are vying for the seats that were left vacant after pro-democracy lawmakers were removed from office over protests they staged during their swearing-in ceremonies that took aim at Beijing.

It comes as China holds its National People’s Congress, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, which on Sunday waved through a change to the constitution to remove presidential term limits.

That move – first announced in late February – clears the way for President Xi Jinping to rule China indefinitely, sparking alarm in Hong Kong, where his time in office has been characterized by tighter Chinese control over the city and shrinking political freedoms.

Those fears were underscored at the start of the meeting on March 5, when a key report delivered by Premier Li Keqiang omitted the usual reference to the people of Hong Kong ruling themselves under the “one country, two systems” formula, which has governed the former British territory since its return to China in 1997.

The arrangement allows Hong Kong a degree of electoral freedom not enjoyed on the mainland, although Beijing ruled out universal suffrage for the city in 2014, sparking a huge street protest that became known as the Umbrella Movement.

Results are due early on Monday.

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Red line

As Xi shores up his grip on power, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is looking shakier than ever, with the cost of resistance rising as protesters increasingly face jail time and political candidates are barred from standing for office.

One pro-democracy candidate, Agnes Chow, who had hoped to replace the disqualified lawmaker Nathan Law, was barred from standing for election at the last minute after authorities extended a blanket ban on pro-independence candidates to also include those who advocate self-determination for the city.

Her party, Demosisto, had advocated Hong Kongers be allowed to vote on the city’s future when the one country, two systems arrangements run out in 2047.

Pro-democracy candidate Agnes Chow was barred from standing in the recent elections.

The failure of the government to pass political reform to give Hong Kongers more of a say in choosing their leader, combined with increasing encroachment by Beijing, has led to calls from an increasing minority in the city for full independence from China.

Voters in the legislative elections in September 2016 thumbed their noses at Beijing by electing several supporters of independence or self-determination for Hong Kong.

Chinese authorities have taken a hard line on the issue, even suggesting advocating or discussing independence may be made illegal. During a visit to the city last year, Xi said it was a “red line” for China.

Veteran campaigner Martin Lee, founder of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, said the move to prevent Chow from running was a major escalation by the authorities.

“How can you say Hong Kong people can’t decide our future,” he asked. “How can you interpret that as just like asking for independence?”

Voters in the legislative elections in September 2016 thumbed their noses at Beijing by electing several supporters of independence or self-determination for Hong Kong.

Prominent Hong Kong activists Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law avoided jail in February but warned a court decision risked greater prison terms for future protests.

No hope

While it was widely expected Xi would stay on past 2022, when his current term is due to end, the removal of term limits puts into focus the need for the city’s democracy movement to come up with a new approach to China.

Pro-Beijing parties hold a near unassailable majority in Hong Kong’s legislature, LegCo, thanks to the functional constituency system, which allocates seats to certain business, trade and civil society groups, the majority of which take their lead from China.

“LegCo is hopeless, completely hopeless,” Lee said, adding the chances of pushing further reform through the current parliament “are zero.”

Lee worried the increasing difficulties facing the pro-democracy movement are “going to encourage more people to give up in the fight for democracy.”

And some young Hong Kongers are giving up on the city entirely, with increasing numbers going to Taiwan or western countries.

For Lee, this is a mistake: “If you leave Hong Kong where do you go to?”

“Where is China not asserting influence?” he asked. “Wherever they go they would still be affected, still cannot get away from the influence of big China.”

“Why don’t we stay home and fight harder?”

CNN’s Katie Hunt in Hong Kong contributed to this report.