HONG KONG (Reuters) - A cyberattack on a voting website threatens to derail an unofficial referendum on democratic reform in Hong Kong, seen as a gauge of the desire for change in the former British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, an organiser said on Tuesday.
The referendum is seen as an important test for pro-democracy activists who believe the public in freewheeling Hong Kong are dissatisfied with the pace of political reform promised by Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
The website received "billions of visits" in the run-up to the vote that starts on Friday, Benny Tai, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and one of the referendum's organisers, said.
Such moves 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.
"We are considering, if the online system does not work as planned, we may extend the voting time so that we can get as many votes as possible, as planned. We had hoped to get around 200,000 votes, even 300,000," Tai said.
"Nothing will deter us from going on. We will continue."
Voters will be able to cast ballots at 15 voting stations throughout Hong Kong on Sunday if the website is down. Access to the site was intermittent on Tuesday afternoon.
Hong Kong is a capitalist hub which enjoys a high degree of autonomy and freedom, but Beijing has resisted public pressure for full democracy.
After a decade of delays, Beijing allowed Hong Kong to go ahead with a popular vote for the city's top leader in 2017, in what is set to be the most far-reaching experiment of democracy on Chinese soil since the Communist takeover in 1949.
But senior Chinese officials have already ruled out the possibility of allowing the public to nominate candidates, insisting instead that a small committee of 1,200 largely pro-Beijing loyalists choose who gets on the ballot, which would effectively render the ability to vote moot.
The government has also warned that only candidates who "love China and Hong Kong" can be nominated. The phrase is understood by the pro-democracy camp to include only those who will take orders from Beijing.
Hong Kong was promised a "high degree" of autonomy under the formula of "one country, two systems", has a free judiciary and relatively free press, and is the only Chinese city which openly marks the bloody June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
China's assertiveness over democratic reform has led to a string of protests over the past year, with a mass democracy rally that could shut down part of the financial hub's business district planned for July.
Organisers are waiting to see the outcome of the online referendum, which ends on Sunday, to decide how to proceed.
Reporting by James Pomfret; Writing by Adam Rose; Editing by Nick Macfie