As of yesterday, more than 780,000 votes had been cast on the final day of an unofficial referendum on democratic reforms in Hong Kong, part of a civil campaign that has been branded illegal by local and Chinese authorities.
Hong Kong, a free-wheeling, capitalist hub of more than 7 million people, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with wide-ranging autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula devised by Beijing, along with an undated promise of universal suffrage.
While Beijing says Hong Kong can go ahead with a vote in 2017 for the territory’s chief executive, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, specifies that only a nominating committee can pick leadership candidates.
Democracy activists want the nomination process to be open to everyone, in line with international standards, and have threatened to lock down the Central district, home to some of Asia’s biggest companies and banks, if the territory fails to adopt a strong democratic method for electing its next leader.
“I think the signal has already been sent to Beijing that Hong Kong people are prepared to express their views on universal suffrage,” said Benny Tai (戴耀廷), associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and one of the organizers of the vote and the movement, Occupy Central with Love and Peace.
The unofficial vote, organized by pro-democracy activists, has been conducted mainly online and requires voters to give their identification number to prevent cheating.
At a “polling booth” at Chinese University of Hong Kong yesterday, a small group of pro-Beijing supporters with mainland accents held up banners denouncing the vote, while four people jumped into Victoria Harbour to protest the referendum and were quickly rescued.
Another pro-Beijing group, Caring Hong Kong Power, marched through the busy shopping district of Causeway Bay carrying bright orange balloons and urging people not to vote.
Group spokeswoman Lee Ka-ka handed a petition to police signed by 30,000 against the Occupy Central group.
She also urged police to “act strongly against the movement.”
Results of the online referendum were expected to be released at about 11pm yesterday, with the overall tally set to be announced today.
Residents have voted on the Internet, and at polling booths.
The last day of voting coincided with China’s military opening its barracks in Hong Kong to the public, giving curious tourists a rare glimpse inside two outposts.
The referendum wrapped up just two days ahead of an annual demonstration tomorrow, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, a date residents use to protest against multiple issues, including what they perceive as foot-dragging on democratic reforms.
Tai urged those who had voted to turn up tomorrow to demonstrate their commitment to universal suffrage.
The 10-day poll, organized by Occupy Central, comes at a time when many Hong Kong residents fear their civil liberties are being eroded and amid growing concern about the rule of law in the Asian financial center.