An affluent city of seven million that returned to Chinese rule in
1997, Hong Kong's longstanding push for full democracy is reaching
what could be boiling point with tens of thousands expected to vote
in the unofficial referendum.
While Beijing has allowed Hong Kong to go ahead with a popular vote
for the city's top leader in 2017, the most far-reaching experiment
in democracy in China since the Communist takeover in 1949, senior
Chinese officials have ruled out allowing the public to nominate
Instead, Beijing insists a small committee of largely pro-Beijing
loyalists choose who gets on the ballot, which would effectively
render the ability to vote meaningless.
One of the founders of the so-called Occupy Central protest
movement, academic Benny Tai, hopes its referendum will draw up to
300,000 people to strengthen the legitimacy of the group's demands
for a fair and representative election in 2017 that would include
The online vote, which is due to start on Friday, was extended on
Wednesday by an additional week until June 29 after a "cyberattack"
threatened to derail it.
The website has received billions of hits since last Saturday,
including more than 10 billion in one 20-hour period, according to a
statement from Robert Chung, director of the public opinion
programme at Hong Kong University who is responsible for the
Such massive scale hits are known in computing as distributed
denial-of-service attacks, which aim to overwhelm a website with
requests so regular visitors can't reach it.
The referendum website was operating normally on Thursday. Voters
will also have the option to cast ballots at 15 voting stations
throughout Hong Kong on two consecutive Sundays.
Despite the attack, roughly 35,000 people participated in
pre-registration and a mock vote on Wednesday.
"As I see it, we are under such serious attack it exactly shows that
Beijing is taking us seriously," law professor Tai said.
The website of Apple Daily, a local tabloid known for its
pro-democracy leanings, was also attacked on Wednesday, taking more
than 40 million hits a second during the peak. The newspaper quoted
its owner, Jimmy Lai, as calling the Chinese Communist Party the
"backstage manipulator" behind the attack. Lai is persona non grata
in China, from which he fled at the age of 12, smuggled by boat into
Chinese and Hong Kong officials, editorials in pro-Beijing
newspapers and businessmen have in recent weeks strongly criticised
Occupy Central, which plans mass protests in the Central business
district this summer, saying it will harm Hong Kong.
"We are using the civil referendum to tell Beijing what is our
baseline, that is true democracy must be something allowing electors
to have genuine choices," Tai said.
Hong Kong returned to China with wide-ranging autonomy under the
formula of "one country, two systems" - along with an undated
promise of full democracy, an issue never broached by the British
until the dying days of 150 years of colonial rule.
The summer protests could see more activist groups spill on to the
streets as political tensions rise. Already last week, the city's
normally peaceful protests took on a violent edge.
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On Friday, a group of radical protesters tried storming their way
into the Legislative Council, smashing glass and ramming doors with
steel barricades and bamboo poles.
Tai stressed his movement hadn't yet decided on an exact date to
launch the street protests, though the results of the referendum
would have a strong bearing.
"IT ONLY HURTS HONG KONG"
Rita Fan, a senior Hong Kong delegate to China's parliament, the
National People's Congress, said the Occupy protests would hurt Hong
Kong and stoke Beijing's mistrust of the city.
"I understand from listening to various people who are officials
from the mainland that they do not wish to see this happen, but they
are not afraid if it happens," Fan told Reuters.
"It only hurts Hong Kong ... If the Hong Kong police force is unable
to contain the situation then the international ratings agencies may
consider that Hong Kong is politically not stable and that may
affect our rating."
A Hong Kong police source told Reuters that mainland law enforcement
officials had stepped up liaison work with police over the past
year, forming an informal working group on how to tackle the
A police spokesman gave no immediate response, but stressed the
force could deal with any "internal security incidents".
Banks in Central have been holding emergency drills and contingency
planning for possible disruptions to operations. [ID:nL4N0OT1JR]
Several current and retired Chinese officials have warned in recent
months, however, that China is prepared to unleash the People's
Liberation Army (PLA) garrison to handle riots in Hong Kong – a
prospect dismissed by some analysts.
"Disorder that is too intense for the Hong Kong police to handle
could justify deployment of the PLA to restore stability," wrote
Hong Kong-based risk consultancy, Steve Vickers and Associates, in a
report. "Such a scenario is unlikely, but would present a major
threat to businesses and to Hong Kong's autonomy and reputation."
(Additional reporting by Adam Rose and James Zhang; Editing by Nick
Macfie and Jeremy Laurence)
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