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 organisers' expectations with more than 700,000 voting so far.
The informal "referendum", organised 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.
- Caught in the crossfire -
Under the agreement reached when the city was handed over from Britain to Communist-ruled China in 1997, Hong Kong residents enjoy civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including free speech and the right to protest.
But the vote comes amid rising fears that these liberties -- guaranteed only until 2047 under the "one country, two systems" deal -- are being steadily eroded.
China has promised direct elections for Hong Kong's next chief executive in 2017, but has ruled out allowing voters to choose which candidates can stand.
Many pro-democrats fear Beijing will hand-pick the candidates to ensure election of a sympathetic official.
The unofficial referendum sets out three options for choosing the chief executive, all of which would give the public some influence over the candidate list.
"All three options in the ballot are against the Basic Law," Leung said Friday, referring to Hong Kong's constitution, shortly after after voting opened.
He made no mention of the legality of the proposals on Tuesday, but he rebuffed Beijing's earlier criticisms that the referendum itself was illegal.
"It (the referendum) does not have any legal basis, but it will not lead to criminal responsibilities," he said.
Sonny Lo, head of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said Leung's comments highlight his tricky position.
"Leung's remarks demonstrate the fact that the Hong Kong government is politically sandwiched between Beijing and the people of Hong Kong who demand to select a chief executive through universal suffrage," Lo told AFP.
"It is the predicament of the Hong Kong government, being hard-pressed by the democrats while Beijing has already said 'no'."
The vote was organised by protest group Occupy Central, who say they will take over the streets of Hong Kong if the government does not allow a free choice of candidates.
The Global Times criticised activists again on Tuesday, in its third editorial on the democracy vote in the past four days.
"The radicals in Hong Kong are dragging Hong Kong to a murky future," it said.
"China is not Ukraine and Hong Kong is unlikely to become another Kiev or Donetsk. However it is the power of Beijing that ensures its prosperity and stable political development."
Concerns over Chinese influence were exacerbated earlier this month after a white paper in which Beijing reasserted its authority over Hong Kong, triggering angry protests in the city.