Updated at 7.00 a.m. EST on 2014-06-17
A website which conducted an unofficial, online poll that seeks to gauge popular support for an "Occupy" movement to push for universal suffrage in 2017 elections in Hong Kong has been hacked amid growing intervention by Beijing in the city's political life.
More than 10,000 users had registered at popvote.hk within hours of the poll's launch last Friday, but by Saturday, the site had been hit by a large-scale distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, a common form of external attack on web-based services.
The attacks had crippled some of the website's features, according to a statement on the Occupy Central movement's Facebook page on Monday.
The group is now looking into issuing paper ballots for the June 22 unofficial referendum on how candidates for the 2017 race for chief executive should be nominated, Occupy Central founder Chan Kin-man told reporters.
The outcome will influence whether or not a long-planned civil disobedience protest at the heart of Hong Kong's Central business district, goes ahead.
"Of course we are concerned that this could result in fewer people taking part in the poll," Chan said.
Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and one of the organizers of Occupy Central, said he believed the attack was a blatant attempt to sabotage the poll.
"This attack ... is aimed at preventing large numbers of people from taking part in the vote," Tai said.
"If there is a major power at work behind the scenes of this attack, then from an analysis of the interests involved, it is very likely connected to the Chinese government," he said.
The popvote.hk poll was jointly undertaken by the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party, through the tightly controlled state media, has stepped up its rhetoric against the "Occupy Central" movement in recent days, with former officials making threats of military suppression.
The English-language China Daily said the movement was "illegal," and that the three proposals for the nomination process for candidates in the 2017 elections for Hong Kong's chief executive were the brainchild of "divisive" groups.
"All three were proposed by radical opposition groups known for their populist tendencies and ability to divide society," the paper said in an editorial last week.
It added: "The Occupy organizers ... are trying to win public support for their illegal actions against popular wishes in the name of true democracy."
Meanwhile, a former head of the official Xinhua news agency in Hong Kong warned on local television that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) could be deployed, should any Occupy movement give rise to rioting.
"Occupy Central ... is illegal and violates Hong Kong's rule of law," retired diplomat Zhou Nan told two local TV stations. "This has demonstrated that a portion of the anti-China forces inside and outside Hong Kong are conspiring to usurp the jurisdiction of the city, which should never be allowed."
Quoting late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, Zhou warned that the PLA could be deployed to handle riots if the movement turned "subversive."
"[The party] would not allow Hong Kong to turn into a base to subvert China's socialist regime under the guise of democracy," he warned.
Struggle for democracy
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said Beijing is ratcheting up the rhetoric, with just a week to go until the poll.
"They are trying to paint the peaceful Occupy Central movement as the action of a small number of troublemakers," Hu said.
"Universal suffrage is Beijing's Achilles heel, because they fear it could trigger a chain reaction and have a much bigger impact than expected," he said.
Hu said he wasn't optimistic that Hong Kong residents would have access to a genuine direct election in which the candidates hadn't already been vetted by the party.
"They can't allow full democracy to become a reality in Hong Kong," he said. "Because the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong is also in some sense a struggle for democracy in mainland China."
"If Hong Kong got universal suffrage ... then this would be a clear message that it is OK for the government to be directly elected [in China]," Hu said.
"There is no way that the Communist Party would be able to withstand that pressure."
While China has agreed to let Hong Kong elect its next leader in 2017, it remains unclear whether or not candidates must first be vetted by pro-Beijing politicians and officials.
Such a move would effectively rule any candidates from opposition democratic parties, or independents not approved by Beijing, out of the race.
Senior officials have already hinted that nominations should be decided by a small committee of about 1,200 largely pro-Beijing loyalists.
But Hong Kong Cardinal Zen Chan Yat-kwan said the universal suffrage movement still has plenty of momentum.
"This is a good beginning," he told RFA's Cantonese Service. "We will definitely be fighting for this, and I still hope to see universal suffrage implemented before I die."
And a Hong Kong student who gave only his surname Chan agreed.
"I think the June 22 poll will attract a lot more people to the Occupy Central movement, and that will give us much more power to negotiate," he said.
"We don't want any more of the government's fake elections and fake consultations," Chan said.
Last Tuesday, Beijing issued a strong reminder that it rules Hong Kong in the form of a white paper on the territory.
Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" under the terms of its 1997 return to Chinese rule, within the "one country, two systems" framework agreed between British and Chinese officials and enshrined in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
However, China's cabinet, the State Council, said in the white paper that such autonomy is still subject to the will of Beijing.
"The high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong is not full autonomy, nor is it decentralized power," the white paper said.
"It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.