More than 200,000 people have voted in an unofficial referendum on democratic reform in Hong Kong within the first few hours of a civil campaign that has sparked warnings from China's Communist Party leaders.
Organisers of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement said on Friday that in the first six hours about 165,000 ballots were cast on proposals for electoral reform. They hope at least 300,000 people will participate.
Social tensions have steadily risen in the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997 - with pro-democracy activists threatening to blockade part of the city's financial district if China does not allow opposition candidates to run in a 2017 election.
While Beijing says Hong Kong can go ahead with a city-wide vote in 2017 for the city's top leader senior Chinese officials have ruled out allowing the public to nominate candidates.
Instead, Beijing insists that a small committee of largely pro-Beijing loyalists choose who gets on the ballot, which would effectively render the ability to vote meaningless.
Even with the PopVote website functioning only intermittently after a cyber-attack earlier in the week, more than 200,000 ballots were cast in the first five hours of voting, said the Public Opinion Programme at the University of Hong Kong, which is handling the vote.
"We hope the government can understand through this referendum how strong public demand is, and take this into consideration when making a decision," said Benny Tai, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and one of the organisers of the vote.
The referendum offers alternative proposals for reform going into the upcoming 2017 election, so that it would conform to international democratic standards.
'No legal effect'
A spokesman for the Hong Kong government said the civil referendum had "no legal effect" and there was no provision under Hong Kong laws for such a vote.
The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the Chinese central government's State Council said in a statement that the election method was not in line with the universal suffrage method determined by the Basic Law and National People's Congress, China's parliament.
Pro-Beijing newspapers, Chinese officials and Hong Kong business tycoons have strongly criticised the Occupy Central campaign, which plans mass protests in the Central business district this summer, saying it will harm Hong Kong.
But activists insist it is a peaceful movement demanding a "genuine choice" for Hong Kong's five million eligible voters.
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 referendum is seen as an important test for pro-democracy activists who are increasingly embittered by perceptions of China's increased control over the city that was promised broad-ranging freedoms upon its return to Chinese rule.
Last week, Beijing released a report reasserting its total control over Hong Kong in what many saw as a veiled warning.
The online vote will be open until June 29.