June 23 (Bloomberg) -- More than 700,000 Hong Kong people have voted after the third day of a democracy poll that China says is illegal, dwarfing the most-optimistic forecasts by organizers.
The unofficial 10-day referendum on how to select Hong Kong’s top leader is organized by Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a protest group that plans to hold a sit-in in the city’s financial district if electoral reforms don’t meet its demands. The turnout, consisting mostly of electronic ballots, equals about 19 percent of registered voters and was more than twice the organizers’ highest forecasts of 300,000.
“We must fight to voice our opinions before getting shut up,” Johnny Lam, 76, said after voting at one of the polling stations that opened yesterday. “China promised us autonomy when it took over Hong Kong, but we are feeling fooled.”
Since the city’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, a pro-Beijing committee has selected Hong Kong’s leader. China has promised universal suffrage for the next chief executive election in 2017 with the caveat that candidates must be vetted. The poll, which runs from June 20 to June 29, offers three election methods, all involving a popular vote.
Interest in the referendum has been fueled by China’s decision earlier this month to issue a policy paper on Hong Kong, asserting that its national interests took priority over those of Hong Kong. The document said that some people are “confused or lopsided” in their understanding of the autonomy conferred on the southern city by the Chinese government.
Hong Kong was granted its own legal system and autonomy over most matters for 50 years under a “One Country, Two Systems” policy after the U.K. returned the territory to China.
About 15 physical polling stations opened yesterday in churches, universities and training centers, attracting about 40,000 voters. The remaining votes were cast via a website or on mobile applications.
Hong Kong had 3.47 million registered voters in 2012, according to the government’s website. The city had a population of 7.2 million people at the end of last year.
Joe Chan, a 47-year-old medical worker, brought his son to the polling station yesterday so that he could witness democracy in action, he said.
“I want him to find out what is going on in Hong Kong,” said Chan, who came to the Causeway Bay polling station with the 12-year-old. “We hope Hong Kong citizens can have the real power to select the city’s chief executive.”
The city’s government issued a statement on June 20 saying that a civil referendum “does not exist in the Basic Law nor in Hong Kong’s domestic legislation, and has no legal effect.” The Basic Law is the city’s de-facto constitution. Yesterday, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen said that the vote is “no more than an expression of opinion by the general public.”
“This is a civil referendum organized by civil society, we never claimed that it has legal force,” said Benny Tai, an associate professor specializing in constitutional and administrative law at the University of Hong Kong and one of the organizers. “Any responsible government must at least respond to demands from such a substantial number of the community.”
Hong Kong’s benchmark stock index tumbled the most in three months today as the political tension amplified a selloff spurred by falling Chinese property prices and higher money-market rates.
Political developments in Hong Kong are probably eroding China’s confidence, “making them avoid relying too much on Hong Kong for international financing activities,” Jospeh Yam, the city’s former central banker, wrote in a book published this week.
Heightened tensions between the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong and Beijing have sparked criticism by state-backed media.
On June 16, an opinion piece in China Daily likened the situation in Hong Kong to a fable about a greedy fisherman’s wife who wished for too much. The official Xinhua news agency called the referendum a “political farce,” saying it is not in line with Hong Kong’s Basic Law, citing the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council.
The “PopVote” website, jointly run by two local universities, suffered “severe” denial-of-service attacks, in which hackers flooded systems with information to shut them down, the poll organizers said in a statement dated June 19.