Hong Kong democracy poll closes with nearly 800,000 votes: Organisers

HONG KONG (AFP) - Polls in an unofficial vote on electoral reform in Hong Kong closed on Sunday with almost 800,000 taking part, organisers said, days before an expected major protest seeking greater democracy for the southern Chinese city.

Chief pollster Robert Chung said 787,000 had participated in the informal referendum, which has angered Beijing, representing almost a quarter of the 3.47 million people who registered to vote at elections in 2012.

"Nearly 800,000 people peacefully expressed their views, no matter who they favour," Mr Chung told reporters late on Sunday, with the final turnout far surpassing organisers' initial expectations.

The number of people that took part represents almost a quarter of the 3.47 million who registered to vote at elections in 2012, in a city of 7.2 million.

The ballot was been dismissed by Chinese state media as "an illegal farce".

The referendum, partly online and partly at physical ballot boxes, offered voters three options on how the next city leader - or chief executive - should be chosen.

Each would allow voters to propose candidates for the top job, and all are therefore considered unacceptable by China and the Hong Kong government.

China has promised universal suffrage by 2017 but has ruled out voters choosing candidates, with democracy advocates fearing only those sympathetic to Beijing will be allowed to stand.

The chief executive is currently selected by a 1,200-strong pro-Beijing committee.

"Every Chinese should have the right to vote," a 90-year-old voter, who only gave his surname as Fu, told AFP as he waited for a polling station to open in the Tsim Sha Tsui district Sunday morning.

"Although people can't do it in China, we can do it in Hong Kong." In response to the referendum, the city's chief secretary for administration Carrie Lam said the authorities would continue to listen to public views.

The success of the unofficial poll came despite major cyber attacks that affected electronic voting and which organisers blamed on Beijing.

The final turnout figure discounted around 10,000 votes as some people had cast their ballot twice, organisers said.

Tensions are running high in the former British colony before the anniversary on July 1 of its 1997 handover to China, a traditional day of protest.

Organisers of Tuesday's rally expect it to be the largest since the handover, with at least 500,000 people expected, as frustration grows over Beijing's influence on the city.

"Public sentiment has dropped to the lowest point since 2003. I believe more people will come out," Mr Johnson Yeung, one of the protest organisers, told AFP.

A record 500,000 people took part in a rally against a proposed national security bill in 2003, forcing the government to shelve it.

It was a key factor in the resignation two years later of the chief executive Tung Chee Hwa.

Fears over interference by Beijing were exacerbated earlier this month when China issued its first ever "white paper" policy document on Hong Kong, in what was widely seen as a warning to the city not to overstep the boundaries of its autonomy.

Pro-democracy group Occupy Central, which organised the informal 10-day referendum, has said that it will take over the centre of the city later in the year if the government does not agree to an element of civil nomination for chief executive candidates.

Concerns over freedoms in Hong Kong have also grown this year following several attacks on journalists, including a knife attack a former editor of a liberal newspaper, Kevin Lau, who was stabbed in broad daylight.

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