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A demonstrator supporting the "Occupy Central" movement holds a placard asking residents to cast ballots for the June 22 referendum on three proposals outlining rules for the chief executive election, during a protest outside Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong on June 11. / Philippe Lopez, AFP/Getty Images

BEIJING - Democracy activists in Hong Kong will hold an unofficial referendum starting Friday over the politically sensitive issue of who should get to choose the city's next leader in elections planned for 2017.

But large-scale cyberattacks from mainland China this week blocked the online voter registration system and forced organizers to extend the vote an extra week - until June 29.

Benny Tai, a law professor at Hong Kong University and one of the referendum's organizers, blamed Beijing for the cyberattacks "as they have a very strong stance against universal suffrage in Hong Kong."

"We have touched on their nerve. Here is more evidence we are doing the right thing," said Tai, who is attacked daily by Hong Kong's pro-Beijing media. He claimed that many of Hong Kong's famously apolitical people have grown so angry at pressure from Beijing that they now intend to vote. Physical polling stations are also being installed.

The informal online poll, originally slated for only Friday through Sunday, asks people to choose one of three options for picking Hong Kong's next top leader, or chief executive. All the choices involve the public nomination of candidates. The results will be submitted to the Hong Kong government, which has promised to publish its plan for the 2017 election in the next few weeks.

The referendum marks the latest move by the civil disobedience movement called Occupy Central, co-founded by Tai. Central is the key business and financial district on Hong Kong Island. If the government's election plans fail to satisfy the groups's demands, the movement threatens to occupy - or congest - Central.

Last week, China's State Council released a policy "white paper" on Hong Kong that emphasized Beijing's authority and "comprehensive jurisdiction" over the capitalist enclave. And this week came the cyberattacks that Tai and others blame on hackers backed by Chinese authorities.

Beijing has in principle agreed to universal suffrage to select the city's chief executive, but China insists that only a committee of 1,200 pro-Beijing loyalists can nominate candidates. Democracy activists seek a ballot open to all.

Seventeen years after the former British colony returned to Chinese rule, Hong Kong still enjoys more political freedoms than the rest of China, under the "one country, two systems" arrangement designed to preserve its way of life.

But Beijing still appears determined to block local campaigns for voting and picking candidates because of concerns that other parts of China would get similar ideas about street protests, political change and the concept of choosing one's own leaders.

Zhou Nan, a former top Chinese official involved in the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to China, warned last week that the China's People's Liberation Army could be deployed if sit-in protests become violent. "Occupy Central ? is illegal and violates Hong Kong's rule of law," Zhou told local TV stations. "A portion of the anti-China forces inside and outside Hong Kong are conspiring to usurp the jurisdiction of the city, which should never be allowed."

Chinese authorities fear that strong participation in the referendum will make Occupy Central "a forceful advocacy, so they must provide genuine universal suffrage, (but) they prefer a system where they choose the candidates," said Michael Davis, a constitutional law expert at the University of Hong Kong. The recent "white paper" told people in Hong Kong "we're the boss, you don't have all this autonomy'," provoking a widespread fear of "more interference ? and a heavier hand from Beijing," he said.

The government and opposition groups could reach some accommodation on electoral change proposals, "but it seems Beijing has no intention to allow democrats to run," Davis said. As people refuse direct or indirect vetting of candidates, "we'll just be stuck with the current system," he said.

Tai sounds more optimistic, expecting pro-democracy candidates will be able to run for chief executive in 2017 - even though they may lose to pro-Beijing rivals.

"Hong Kong people, maybe the majority, love to have democracy, but not too many are ready to pay a price for that," he said.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Cyberattacks disrupt Hong Kong democracy drive

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