Activists in China's casino capital Macau hold informal referendum on democratic reforms

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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.

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.

Macau residents can cast votes online from Aug. 24 to 30.

On Sunday they can also go to five polling stations run by volunteers to have their say on two motions: whether they believe Macau's leader should be directly elected in 2019, and whether they have confidence in incumbent Chui.

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.