More than 400,000 Hong Kong residents ignored warnings from Beijing and voted for full democracy in the former British colony in an unofficial referendum on democratic reform launched Friday.
By midnight Hong Kong time, 404,834 people had cast their votes via an online voting system, the Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a mass movement fighting for “genuine” universal suffrage in the special Chinese territory, told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper.
The number of participants appears to have outstripped expectations. Organizers had said before the mostly online vote opened that they were hoping for 300,000 people to participate in total, reports have said.
The Occupy ballot asks respondents to choose between three different options for the selection of candidates in the 2017 race for Hong Kong chief executive, all of which involve some form of public nomination.
Beijing said Friday that any referendum in Hong Kong on how to elect its leader would "not have constitutional grounds" and would be "illegal and invalid," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
"All three options on the ballot are against the Basic Law," Hong Kong's current leader Leung Chun-ying said, referring to Hong Kong's constitution.
Chinese authorities have strongly opposed any form of public nomination of candidates, suggesting that only those approved by a hand-picked committee will be allowed to run.
China's tightly controlled state media has slammed the organizers of the poll, who are drawn from the pro-democracy political camp, as a minority intent on stirring up trouble.
The poll, which has been extended to June 29 after the online voting system came under one of the largest cyberattacks in history, could be used to gauge widespread popular support for an "Occupy" movement in the territory's Central business district to campaign for universal suffrage.
One voter surnamed Wong said he had succeeded in casting his vote on Friday in spite of technical problems experienced by the site.
"I think about five out of 10 people [I know] are voting," Wong said. "The first time I tried it, it didn't work ... but it did at about 3.00 p.m."
He said he voted because the poll gives Hong Kong people an alternative voice.
"I feel that normal ballot boxes don't represent me," Wong said. "So I express my opinion to nongovernment organizations."
Benny Tai, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and one of the organizers of Occupy Central, said the initial results were encouraging.
"The situation right now is very encouraging," Tai told RFA, as a small demonstration for universal suffrage sang songs and chanted slogans in Hong Kong's Central district on Friday evening.
But he added: "The attack on the system is still ongoing. All we can do is keep an eye on it."
"I believe our Internet service provider is putting a lot of resources into this," he said.
Anson Chan, former second-in-command during the last colonial government under Chris Patten, called on Hong Kong people to take part in the poll, so as to "show central government the desire of Hong Kong people for universal suffrage."
Chen Zuo'er, former deputy director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, who was Beijing's lead negotiator with British officials ahead of the handover, said the Occupy movement is illegal.
"It is hard to calculate the damage that it could do to Hong Kong," Chen said. He hit out at the organizers for promising "the impossible" and hoodwinking Hong Kong's young people.
"I am opposed to this illegal act of occupying Central, and if it does happen, it is hard to assess how much economic damage could be done," he told reporters while attending a research symposium in Hong Kong.
"The rule of law is a core value in Hong Kong, and they know they are breaking the law, and they are doing it anyway," Chen said.
"They are also duping young people into taking part."
Occupy Central founder and university professor Chan Kin-man said the response to the poll had been "ideal," however, in the wake of a strongly worded policy document warning Hong Kong that it is still subject to Beijing.
"We think this is an ideal response ... [and that] local residents were extremely angry about the white paper and the hacker attack," Chan said.
"They felt that their basic rights as citizens were being suppressed, so I think a lot of the votes are being cast in that spirit," he said.
"You can paralyze our computer systems, but you can't paralyze the will of the Hong Kong people."
Under the terms of Hong Kong's 1997 handover to China and its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, the territory's chief executive will be directly elected in 2017.
However, Chinese officials appear to have ruled out the possibility of public nominations of candidates, who are currently chosen by an election committee handpicked by Beijing.
In the poll via via the smartphone app “PopVote” or the website popvote.hk, Hong Kong's five million eligible voters are being asked to choose between three possible modes of electing the chief executive in 2017, all of which involve public nomination.
Last Tuesday, Beijing issued a strong reminder in the form of a white paper on the territory that it rules Hong Kong.
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.
Former League of Social Democrats chairman Andrew To said the ruling Chinese Communist Party is getting more and more nervous about a possible "Occupy" movement in one of its major cities.
"The more nervous they get and the more heavy-handed the pressure, the more Hong Kong people will stand up and be counted," To said.
He urged Beijing to reflect on the issues at stake, however.
"If you don't give Hong Kong true democracy, then Hong Kong people will come out onto the streets," he said. "It may be more than a decade since the handover, but psychologically we aren't yet handed over."
He said Beijing had failed to uphold a genuine boundary under its promise of "one country, two systems."
"Hong Kong people are only protesting because they feel powerless," To said.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.