Hong Kong's chief executive C.Y. Leung on Tuesday hit back at commentaries in China's state media slamming an unofficial referendum on democratic reform, although analysts said he has already been left with no room for maneuver by Beijing.
"The [state-run] Global Times yesterday published an article headlined: 'However many are involved in the illegal referendum, they can't match 1.3 billion'—I don't agree with that," Leung said. "Nobody should place Hong Kong people in confrontation with mainland Chinese citizens."
Leung's remarks came after more than 700,000 of Hong Kong's residents cast a vote in a poll seeking to gauge popular support for universal suffrage in 2017, and marked a sharp change in direction from his previous comments on the referendum.
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.
Beijing has repeatedly said via official media that the referendum is illegal, and that the three options contravene Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
But while Leung repeated his administration's stance that the referendum carries "no legal weight," he stopped short of dismissing it, defending voters' right to have their say.
"Many of the participating citizens have expressed their hopes and demands for the 2017 chief executive elections," he told reporters.
Editors at the English-language tabloid Global Times, which has close ties with ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, have penned three editorials in four days hitting out at the referendum, which ends June 29.
Official media have repeatedly described the poll, run by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme, as "illegal" and "fraudulent."
"The radicals in Hong Kong are dragging Hong Kong to a murky future," they wrote in Tuesday's commentary.
"China is not Ukraine and Hong Kong is unlikely to become another Kiev or Donetsk. However it is the power of Beijing that ensures its prosperity and stable political development," it said.
Meanwhile, organizers said at least 728,601 Hong Kong permanent residents had voted online, by smartphone app, or in person by 6:00 p.m. local time on Tuesday.
Hong Kong lawmaker and Civic Party leader Alan Leong said the Global Times was trying to heighten divisions in Hong Kong, but that C.Y. Leung had also proved a "divisive" leader since being appointed by an election committee hand-picked by Beijing two years ago.
"The chief executive's comments today were about trying to pour oil on troubled waters, and to limit the number of people taking part in the referendum from now until June 29," Leong said.
"He is also hoping to keep down the number of people who take part in the [annual] July 1 demonstrations," he said. "His aim is abundantly clear."
Hong Kong political commentator Poon Siu-to said Leung has precious little political room for maneuver, now that Beijing has made its stance so clear.
"I don't think his comments are intended to be helpful; he is just obfuscating the issue," Poon said. "Maybe he doesn't know if Beijing has a new policy [to deal with it], so he's just making some politically correct comments in the meantime."
Some of the 1.3 billion people on the Chinese mainland, however, appeared to sympathize with Hong Kong's struggle.
Social media activist Wu Gan, known online by his nickname "The Butcher," said the Global Times' commentary referencing 1.3 billion people was "ridiculous."
"It's pretty funny, and some people online are saying that the 1.3 billion don't even have direct elections themselves, so how can they decide the fate of Hong Kong?" Wu said. "They don't even get to decide their own."
"As far as illegal goes, I think this is an expression of popular opinion and demands, so it doesn't need their permission," he said.
Wu said the democracy movement in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which already has full, universal elections for the legislature and the presidency, were a beacon of hope to pro-democracy activists on the mainland.
"That's why I support Hong Kong people in their struggle for their rights," he said.
Many activists echoed Wu's support in online comments.
Lin Fei-fan, one of the leaders of Taiwan's "sunflower" student movement that occupied the island's legislature earlier this year amid a stand-off over a cross-straits agreement with China, wrote: "Isn't it enough that the Chinese Communist Party has suppressed the voices of 1.3 billion people, without speaking on their behalf as well?"
"The Chinese government can tell us that 700,000 isn't a lot of people after it has tested itself democratically and willingly faced its own people," Lin wrote on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong-based netizen Yee-Chung Fu said the Global Times' logic was severely flawed. "Out of a country of 1.3 billion, how many have the right to speak out freely, or to take part in elections?" the user wrote.
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.
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.
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.