HONG KONG - Hong Kong holds a controversial "referendum" on democracy on Friday, a prelude to an escalating campaign of dissent that could shut down the former British colony's financial district and further anger China's Communist Party leaders.
An affluent city of seven million that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong's longstanding push for full democracy is reaching what could be boiling point with tens of thousands expected to vote in the unofficial referendum.
While Beijing has allowed Hong Kong to go ahead with a popular vote for the city's top leader in 2017, the most far-reaching experiment in democracy in China since the Communist takeover in 1949, senior Chinese officials have ruled out allowing the public to nominate candidates.
Instead, Beijing insists a small committee of largely pro-Beijing loyalists choose who gets on the ballot, which would effectively render the ability to vote meaningless.
One of the founders of the so-called Occupy Central protest movement, academic Benny Tai, hopes its referendum will draw up to 300,000 people to strengthen the legitimacy of the group's demands for a fair and representative election in 2017 that would include opposition democrats.
The online vote, which is due to start on Friday, was extended on Wednesday by an additional week until June 29 after a "cyberattack" threatened to derail it.
The website has received billions of hits since last Saturday, including more than 10 billion in one 20-hour period, according to a statement from Mr Robert Chung, director of the public opinion programme at Hong Kong University who is responsible for the referendum's website.
Such massive scale hits are known in computing as distributed denial-of-service attacks, which aim to overwhelm a website with requests so regular visitors can't reach it.
The referendum website was operating normally on Thursday.
Voters will also have the option to cast ballots at 15 voting stations throughout Hong Kong on two consecutive Sundays.
Despite the attack, roughly 35,000 people participated in pre-registration and a mock vote on Wednesday.
"As I see it, we are under such serious attack it exactly shows that Beijing is taking us seriously," law professor Tai said.
The website of Apple Daily, a local tabloid known for its pro-democracy leanings, was also attacked on Wednesday, taking more than 40 million hits a second during the peak.
The newspaper quoted its owner Jimmy Lai as calling the Chinese Communist Party the "backstage manipulator" behind the attack.
Mr Lai is persona non grata in China, from which he fled at the age of 12, smuggled by boat into Hong Kong.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials, editorials in pro-Beijing newspapers and businessmen have in recent weeks strongly criticised Occupy Central, which plans mass protests in the Central business district this summer, saying it will harm Hong Kong.
"We are using the civil referendum to tell Beijing what is our baseline, that is true democracy must be something allowing electors to have genuine choices," Dr Tai said.
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.