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Hong Kong democracy vote that left Beijing fuming winds down with big turnout

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HONG KONG - An informal referendum aimed at bolstering support for greater democracy in Hong Kong wound down Sunday after drawing nearly 800,000 votes and the ire of Beijing, which denounced it as a political farce.

Hong Kongers used the straw poll to express their desire for greater say in choosing their leader.

The vote is part of a campaign by activists in the southern Chinese city to ratchet up the pressure on authorities for democratic reform that could ultimately lead to a mass protest paralyzing the city's financial district.

Hong Kong, a freewheeling capitalist enclave of 7.2 million, passed from British to Chinese control in 1997 with the promise that it could retain a high degree of control over its own affairs under the principle of "one country, two systems."

Beijing has pledged to allow Hong Kongers to elect their next leader in 2017, but is balking at letting them nominate candidates. China's communist leaders instead insist all candidates must be vetted by a Beijing-friendly committee, like the one that has handpicked the city's leaders since British rule ended.

Beijing has slammed the poll by organizers of the Occupy Central for Love and Peace movement as illegal, and the state-run Global Times newspaper blasted it as "mincing ludicrousness."

Organizers said after voting ended Sunday evening that after excluding duplicate votes, some 787,767 ballots were cast over 10 days. Voters, who were required to submit their identity card numbers, cast ballots online, through a smartphone app or at polling stations.

The government of Hong Kong, which has 3.5 million registered voters, said in a statement that the unofficial referendum has "no legal effect."

Voters had a choice of three proposals on democratic reform, all of which included so-called public nomination.

Occupy Central organizers have vowed to rally 10,000 people in a mass protest aimed at crippling the central business district if the government fails to come up with reform proposals that meet international standards.

Rising public discontent over mainland China's increasing influence has fuelled yearning for full democracy in Hong Kong, where residents can only vote for 40 of 70 lawmakers as well as local councillors.

In what was seen as a thinly veiled threat ahead of the 10-day poll, Beijing released a policy document earlier this month that said, among other things, that Hong Kong's autonomy comes at the discretion of the central government. The paper sparked a backlash, with more than 800 lawyers protesting Friday over a requirement for judges to be patriotic to China.

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