MACAU (AP) -- Activists in the Chinese casino capital of Macau kicked off an informal poll on Sunday to gauge support for democratic reforms, inspired by a similar vote in Hong Kong that had a big turnout but was denounced by Beijing as an illegal farce.
The former Portuguese colony, like nearby Hong Kong, is a semiautonomous Chinese region with a leader hand-picked by an elite Beijing-friendly committee.
The 400-member committee is widely expected to elect current leader Fernando Chui to another five-year term on Aug. 31, the same day that referendum organizers plan to release the poll results.
Before the voting started, Macau's Office for Personal Data Protection, a government agency, handed the Open Macau Society, one of the organizers, a warning letter urging them to stop collecting voters' personal data because it was in violation of the personal data protection ordinance, said the society's president, Jason Chao. The data protection office also told them to delete the information they had collected, he said.
An hour into the voting, Chao said one of the five polling stations was closed after police took away all the volunteers.
"The civil referendum that we are organizing is an opportunity for the citizens to express their view on the chief executive election, (in) which the majority of the citizens don't have the right to vote," Chao said.
Voting will be open until Aug. 30. Those taking part are not allowed to use ballot or ballot boxes because this is an unofficial exercise.
On Sunday, only a handful came to the five polling stations run by volunteers, where they voted on tablets. They can have a say on two motions: whether they believe Macau's leader should be directly elected in 2019, and whether they have confidence in incumbent Chui.
"We hope we can voice our opinion, and let the government know our demand such as solving the housing and traffic congestion problems," said Sam Liu, a clerk.
The only place in China where casinos are legal, Macau rakes in annual gambling revenue of $45 billion, dwarfing the money earned on the Las Vegas Strip. But social tensions have grown as the decade-long casino boom has widened inequality, strained resources and inflated housing prices in the city of about 600,000.
In May, 20,000 people took to the streets to demonstrate against a bill giving lavish retirement benefits to top officials, forcing the government to scrap it.
The three groups organizing the unofficial referendum, Macau Conscience, Macao Youth Dynamics and Open Macau Society, are taking their lead from Hong Kong democracy activists, who held a similar poll in June that drew nearly 800,000 votes and set the stage for a confrontation with Beijing over democratic reform.
Hong Kong came back under Beijing's control in 1997, and Macau followed two years later. Both are granted a high degree of control over their own affairs under the principle of "one country, two systems." But unlike Hong Kong, there's no provision in Macau's mini-constitution for eventual full democracy.
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