HONG KONG — Pro-democracy forces swept Hong Kong district council elections over the weekend, boosting pressure on the city’s Beijing-backed government to listen to protesters’ demands for greater freedoms.

China responded sternly to the landslide in the vote widely seen as a referendum on public support for the anti-government demonstration movement. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that no matter how the situation in Hong Kong changes, the semi-autonomous region is part of China.

“Any attempt to disrupt Hong Kong and damage [its] stability and prosperity will not succeed,” he told reporters in Japan, where he was attending a G-20 foreign ministers meeting.

Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang added Monday that Hong Kong’s most urgent task is to restore order that has been increasingly shaky as protesters continue to clash with police.

Pro-democracy supporters chant as they celebrate the loss of a pro-Beijing candidate in Hong Kong’s district council elections on Monday. Philip Fong / AFP – Getty Images

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Geng also stressed that tensions in Hong Kong are purely China’s internal affairs.

“The determination of the Chinese government to safeguard the interests of national sovereign security and development is unshakable,” he was quoted as saying by Global Times, a hawkish newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party.

China has blamed Western governments for fomenting the unrest in the former British colony.

For months, Hong Kong protesters have been demanding that China loosens its grip.

Beijing has steered clear of interfering in the protesters directly, saying that it trusts Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam to handle the situation. However, the protests have presented Chinese leader Xi Jinping with one of the biggest popular challenges since he came to power in 2012.

Although district councils have little power and the election is normally a low-key race, over 2.9 million cast their votes in Hong Kong Sunday in a 71 percent turnout, exceeding the 2015 participation levels by nearly 25 percent.

The pro-democracy camp had won a commanding majority of the 452 district council seats at stake, taking control of at least 17 of the city’s 18 district councils in a rebuke to Lam and her handling of the protests.

People queue to cast their vote in the district council elections in Tseung Kwan O district of Hong Kong on Sunday. Ye Aung Thu / AFP – Getty Images

Lam issued a statement Monday, saying her government respects the results and promised to “humbly listen” to the public’s opinions.

“There are various interpretations related to the results, and quite a few view it as a reflection of people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and society’s deep-seated problems,” she acknowledged.

The vote is the only fully democratic one in Hong Kong. Members of the legislature are chosen partly by popular vote and partly by interest groups representing different sectors of society, and the city’s leader is picked by a 1,200-member body that is dominated by supporters of the central government in Beijing.

Associated Press contributed.

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Last Modified: November 25, 2019