Political tensions continued to build in Hong Kong on Wednesday amid a debate over full democracy and continued judicial independence in the former British colony, ahead of an annual July 1 protest march marking the anniversary of the handover to Beijing.
Tensions are running high following a series of attacks in Chinese state media on an unofficial referendum on the democratic process, a massive cyberattack on the poll's website, and a controversial white paper asserting Beijing's ultimate authority over the territory, which was promised "a high degree of autonomy" under the terms of its 1997 handover.
More than 740,000 people have cast ballots since the mostly online PopVote poll, which was designed by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme, opened last Friday.
According to Young Wo-sang, one the poll's technological consultants, up to 40 percent of the "distributed denial of service" (DDoS) attacks on the PopVote servers have been traced to mainland Chinese companies with offices in Hong Kong.
The website was targeted by more than 10 billion DDoS attacks since its public launch on June 13 in "the most sophisticated onslaught ever seen," Young told the English-language South China Morning Post newspaper.
"After tracing the IP addresses, we have found that 30 to 40 percent of them were registered by mainland enterprises," he said.
Young, who is convener of the Internet Society of Hong Kong's security and privacy working group, told the paper that the companies may not necessarily know that their computers had been used in the attack, however.
Beijing's role suspected
Organizers of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement, which has vowed to blockade Hong Kong's business district if universal suffrage and public nomination of candidates are denied to the city's voters, have said they suspect that Beijing ordered the attacks.
The poll has been repeatedly slammed as "illegal" by China's state-controlled media, and Beijing's hard-line response may have boosted the numbers taking part, political commentators say.
The white paper has drawn the ire of the territory's legal profession, meanwhile, who say Beijing's naked assertion of authority could undermine the city's much-prized judicial independence.
Hong Kong lawmaker and lawyer Dennis Kwok said on Wednesday that the white paper had struck a blow against judicial independence in Hong Kong.
He called on fellow lawyers to stage a silent protest by marching from the High Court to the Court of Final Appeal on Friday.
"The legal profession must make its stance clear, regarding the white paper's effect on the rule of law," Kwok told a lunch meeting in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
"Otherwise, the central government might say that we didn't speak out when their stance was made clear in the white paper, and that this means we accepted it," he said.
"We absolutely cannot afford to send this message, even slightly," Kwok said.
In the poll via the smartphone app "PopVote" or the website popvote.hk, Hong Kong's five million eligible voters are being asked 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.
Pro-Beijing officials and advisers have already said that candidates must be "patriotic," suggesting they will be selected by a 1,200-strong committee heavily stacked with its supporters. However, no final decision has yet been announced.
Meanwhile, China's Central Propaganda Department has ordered the country's tightly controlled media to delete all references to the Hong Kong referendum.
"Effective immediately, find and delete all news related to the 6/22 Hong Kong referendum, thoroughly clean up related comments, and promptly send a work report [on your progress]," the State Council Information Office said in a directive dated June 23 and sent to news organizations and websites around the country.
"Forcibly cancel blogs and microblog posts reprinting harmful information. Ensure that no information related to the referendum appears online," the directive said.
The directive, which was leaked by Chinese journalists before being translated and collated by the U.S.-based China Digital Times website, ordered authorities in the southern province of Guangdong, which neighbors Hong Kong, to block all programs from Hong Kong television stations from cross-border transmission.
A softer line
However, a leading Chinese academic on Wednesday appeared to take a slightly softer line, echoing Hong Kong chief executive C.Y.Leung's description of the poll as a valid public opinion exercise on Tuesday.
Basic Law Committee-member and Hong Kong expert Rao Geping told reporters that the unofficial referendum, which runs until June 29, was one way to find out what some residents of Hong Kong think.
"We can take it as a form of public opinion expressed by the people of Hong Kong," Rao said following a seminar hosted by the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies in Beijing. "I am not sure if the number of voters is accurate; that is a matter for the people of Hong Kong to consider."
"I think the number nonetheless reflects the demand of some people in Hong Kong, though I daren't say it's a view adopted by everybody. So the Hong Kong government and the central government have to take it seriously," he said.
Meanwhile, association vice-chairman Qi Pengfei said Beijing had delayed until earlier this month the publication of a controversial white paper which says the ruling Chinese Communist Party has ultimate power over the former British colony, and that Hong Kong's promised high degree of autonomy stems only from Beijing.
"The one country, two systems concept was really tested around 2003 [during huge popular protests over the implementation of a subversion clause in the Basic Law]," Qi said.
"A number of experts, myself included, said that it wasn't an appropriate time to be bringing up other issues, and creating a spirit of confrontation between the central government and Hong Kong," he said.
"Now, this policy document and position paper has been released in a spirit of openness and transparency," Qi said. "It was intended so that people would gain a new understanding and recognition of the central government's intentions and of the one country, two systems concept."
Political commentators say Leung's more conciliatory line on the poll is part of a bid to mollify public anger in Hong Kong ahead of the annual protest march on July 1, the anniversary of the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule, and to minimize the numbers taking part in the referendum.
Occupy organizer and Hong Kong academic Chan Kin-man said the numbers taking part in the poll have already "far exceeded" their expectations.
However, he admitted that some people had likely voted more than once.
"There are some people in the 700,000 or more who have voted more than once, by going in person to polling stations after they have voted online," Chan said.
But he added: "In the next few days our focus will be on enabling people who want to vote and haven't yet had a chance, to do so."
Organizers of the Civil Human Rights Front are expecting some 100,000 people to turn out next week, with many in support of universal suffrage and public nomination of candidates, although a number of popular causes and pressure groups are usually represented.
However, the Hong Kong immigration department has denied entry visas to three members of Taiwan's "Sunflower" student movement, which occupied the island's legislature for three weeks earlier this year in protest over the rapid passage through parliament of a controversial trade pact with Beijing.
Chan said the same students had been able to attend last year's July 1 march, however.
"They haven't been able to get visas for Hong Kong this year, so we are making the reasonable assumption that this is due to political reasons," he 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.