LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
On to Hong Kong now, where millions are taking to the streets again, this time to vote in what has turned out to be the biggest election in the city's history. Today's district elections are being seen as a referendum on public support behind increasingly violent anti-government protests.
NPR's Emily Feng is on the ground in Hong Kong covering the elections, and she joins us. Hi, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are you seeing at the polls?
FENG: I went out early this morning. Long lines had already formed. They snaked around the block at most polling stations because people had heard rumors that potential violence or intimidation might close the booths down early, but that wasn't the case. The streets were really quiet today, except for the fact that candidates themselves were out campaigning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So these elections are for district councilors. What do these councilors do there? How important are these elections?
FENG: The funny thing is these elections are normally not that important. Councilors don't make law. They only advise lawmakers. They do have a little bit of sway in picking the city's top leader every four years. But the real reason why the elections are given this outsized importance this year is because they're seen as a way to channel public expression. There's no direct vote for the top leader here. In fact, that's one of the key demands of the anti-government protests right now. And so other than taking to the streets and marching, these district elections are really the only way to - for the public to express themselves.
One of the districts I went to today was called South Horizons. It's where pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong tried to run as a district councilor but was disqualified last month. But he was still out in the streets. He was campaigning for a friend, fellow pan-democrat Kelvin Lam, who's now running in Wong's place. I talked to Joshua Wong on what the elections mean for him.
JOSHUA WONG: Let the world know how Hong Kong people deserve democracy. And I believe the high turnout rate today will prove that Hong Kong people deserve to have free election to elect our government.
FENG: And in a sign of just how the diversity of opinion fits into the small place that is Hong Kong, literally just a few meters away from Joshua Wong was his opponent Judy Chan, who is a pro-establishment, pro-Beijing incumbent. And she had this message for voters.
JUDY CHAN: For the six - past six months, a lot of violence has happened in Hong Kong. And I am hoping this election - the result will come out good, and hopefully it will send a message to everyone and saying that Hong Kong people really want a peaceful community.
FENG: So these are two people on two different sides of the aisle, so to speak. And they both see the election as an important referendum on public opinion, but for obviously really different reasons.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you know, crucially, Beijing is a big player in all this. And how are they reacting? They must be watching all of this very closely.
FENG: They are. The results will definitely factor into just how heavy-handed Beijing thinks it can be when it comes to Hong Kong. They're also looking for any sign that this might weaken the representation of the historical overrepresentation of pro-Beijing parties in actual lawmaking positions. And in just a sign of just how closely Beijing's watching this, the elections have actually gotten significant play in state media in mainland China, which is kind of strange because there are no real direct elections there.
We'll know the full elections by Monday morning, and people will be paying close attention. We'll have a much better idea of where Hong Kong really stands after nearly half a year of protest.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Emily Feng. Thank you so much.
FENG: Thank you, Lulu.
(SOUNDBITE NELS CLINE SINGERS, "DIVINING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.