More than 700,000 ballots have been cast in an unofficial poll on Hong Kong's electoral reform that a former top mainland official in charge of the city's affairs dismissed yesterday as unrepresentative.
The turnout for the Occupy Central "referendum" was well above expectations, believed to be fuelled by a public backlash against Beijing's reassertion of its sovereignty over the city in a white paper two weeks ago.
But Chen Zuoer, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office from 1998 to 2008, said in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post the exercise was not a frank indicator of how residents wanted to elect their chief executive in 2017.
Chen also insisted that, as all three proposals shortlisted for the poll violated the Basic Law, it was illegal.
"The media have reported that there are dishonest elements during the process of conducting the public vote, which will result in its failure to truly reflect public opinion," he said, without elaborating on those claims.
Chen's comments are sure to rile pro-democracy activists, already stung by the white paper, which critics see as a heavy-handed attempt by Beijing to quash support for Occupy Central, the civil movement advocating a democratic election in 2017.
The Occupy poll lists three reform plans, all of which want the public to be able to nominate candidates - an idea Beijing rejects.
About half of 207 voters surveyed yesterday pointed to the white paper as a reason they took part, the Post found in a mini-poll. But the main driving force was a demand for "genuine" universal suffrage - as cited by 90 per cent of the respondents.
Bank manager Lam Chi-ko said he would not have taken part, had the State Council not issued the white paper. "Occupy Central will affect the finance industry. I have been drafting contingency operation plans for my company," Lam said. "But ... there are so many differences between the white paper and the Basic Law, it is like overturning everything."
At the Causeway Bay polling station, a 68-year-old retired teacher said she was merely fulfilling her responsibility to vote, adding: "If I don't come out and make my voice heard today, when should I do it?"
Alex Tsang Chun-kai said it was the white paper that provoked him. "I have seldom taken part in protests, but what drives me this time is really the white paper, which says something like judges should serve the government like a political tool," he said. "Judicial independence can never be compromised."
"I feel more safe if I come along and cast the ballot inside the box, " Kwok said.
He said the content of the recent white paper has enraged him and made him more determined to vote as a gesture to voice his discontent against the government.
Another voter, who referred to herself as Mrs Ng, said she was a middle-class woman who had not been concerned about politics - until the recent release of Beijing's white paper.
"The mainland government is meddling too much in local affairs, " she said. "This is outragous."
Cheng, a 40 year-old banker who visited the poll with his wife and seven-year-old son, said he wanted to educate his son to be concerned about current affairs.
"It is time for the next generation to know what is happening, as this will affect their future," said Cheung, who preferred to give only his surname.
Members of the pro-government Caring Hong Kong Power gathered at the same station to urge people not to vote in the "illegal" referendum.
Occupy co-organiser Benny Tai Yiu-ting said Chen should beware of dismissing the poll as unlawful. "He will have to bear the responsibility if he misjudges [public sentiment] and gives Beijing the wrong advice," Tai said.
But Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said the voting could "be regarded as no more than an expression of opinion by the public".
The poll started on the internet on Friday. By midnight, the turnout had exceeded 700,000, including 48,000 voting at 15 polling stations from 10am to 10pm yesterday. The exercise will continue until Sunday, with City University open for voting on evenings this week.
Watch: Hong Kongers defy Beijing to vote in democracy referendum
Where you can cast your vote
Hong Kong Island:
1. The University of Hong Kong
[G/F,The Hong Kong University Students' Union Building, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong]
2. Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union Causeway Bay Service Centre
[M/F Wing Tak Mansion, 15 Canal Road West, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong]
3. 18 Chai Wan Rd
[18 Chai Wan Rd, Shau Kei Wan, Hong Kong]
1. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
[Room GH201, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hung Hom]
2. City University of Hong Kong
[R4201, 4/F, Amenities Building, City University of Hong Kong, Kowloon Tong]
3. Cheung Sha Wan Job Training Centre, Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood
[Shop 5-7, Trade Square G/F, Cheung Sha Wan Road No. 681]
4. Hong Kong Christian Council Building
[Basement, Christian Ecumenical Building, 33 Granville Road, Tsim Sha Tsui]
5. St Paul’s Parish
[Tung Kun Street, Yau Ma Tei]
6. St. Bonaventure Church
[89 Po Kong Village Road, Tsz Wan Shan]
1. Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union Tseung Kwan O Centre
[G/F Yan Ming Court Multi Storey Car Park, 100 Po Lam Road North, Tseung Kwan O]
2. Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, Tuen Mun
[Tuen Mun Heung Sze Wui Road, Tuen Mun]
3. Yuen Long Training Centre, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions
[2-8 Tai Cheung Stree, 5/F, THF (Yuen Long) Commercial Building , Yuen Long]
4. Shatin Marden Foundation Secondary School Building (opposite to Sha Tin Government Secondary School)
[18-24 Man Lai Road, Shatin]
5. Neighbourhood & Worker's Service Centre – Tsuen Wan Far East Retraining Centre
[135-143 Castle Peak Road, Far East Centre, Tsuen Wan]
6. Neighbourhood & Worker's Service Centre – Kwai Fong Integrated Service Mutual Help Child Care Centre Limited
[1-3, G/F, Kwai Fong Estate Kwai Yan House, Kwai Chung]