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May 27, 2017

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Hong Kong hits back at China media over democracy poll

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's leader hit back Tuesday at Chinese media criticism of an unofficial democracy poll in the city, softening his stance after turnout far exceeded organizers' expectations with more than 700,000 voting so far.

The informal "referendum," organized by local pro-democracy activists, comes as fears grow that China will backtrack on its promise to allow Hong Kong voters to choose their next leader — currently appointed by a pro-Beijing panel.

The city's current chief executive Leung Chun-ying said voters had "expressed their hopes and demands" for elections in 2017.

He hit back at an editorial in China's state-run Global Times newspaper condemning the poll as "an illegal farce" and saying that China's 1.3 billion population outweighed opinions in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous city of seven million.

"Global Times yesterday came out with a piece, headlined: 'However many involved in illegal referendum, it can't match 1.3 billion' — I don't agree with that," Leung said.

"Nobody should place Hong Kong people in confrontation with mainland Chinese citizens," he added.

The comments stood in sharp contrast with Leung's initial reaction, which was in line with Beijing's stance that the referendum's proposals go against Hong Kong's constitution.

On Tuesday, Leung defended voters' right to have their say.

"Many of the participating citizens have expressed their hopes and demands for the 2017 chief executive elections," he told reporters.

As of 6 pm local time (1000 GMT) Tuesday, more than 734,000 people had taken part in the informal ballot online, via mobile phones and at polling stations, with voting open until June 29.

Paper votes have not yet been counted but pollsters said Tuesday that there were less than 1,000 cast as most people used electronic tablets provided at polling booths.

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