A citizen-run voting platform in Macau asking residents whether the city's chief executive should be elected by universal suffrage, which was a target of severe cyberattacks in the past few days, has now been suspended because of unclear "abnormalities".
The poll, which was launched on August 11 by pro-democracy group the New Macau Association, was aimed at sparking discussions about political reform in the city.
"The voting website has faced severe cyberattacks since last week. Although I have no evidence to suggest whether the attacks are 'state-sponsored', I can tell that the attackers are professionals," said Jason Chao Teng-hei, an activist who was running the website.
"Traces of their activities suggest that the origin is mainland China," Chao added. "The purpose of the intimidation and the cyberattack is clear - to interfere with Macau people's exercise of the right to express their view on universal suffrage."
Sulu Sou Ka-hou, the leader of the group, said: "There are not many opportunities to discuss these issues in Macau, so we thought this was good timing to raise awareness for the need of a political reform."
Polling was supposed to close on Sunday - the same day the city's 400-member electoral college is set to anoint Ho Iat-seng, the only candidate running, as chief executive.
But on Friday night, the New Macau Association announced that the website was experiencing "abnormalities", and that technicians were working on safeguarding the security and integrity of the data.
The message said the voting had been suspended and the announcement of results would also be postponed.
Sou was not available for comment after the note was released.
The nature of the technical problems is unclear. Despite the previous cyberattacks, Chao said that "as the supplier of the technology for the vote … I received no report that the integrity or security of the data was compromised. Personally, I do not understand the reference to 'abnormalities'".
Chao, who is the former president of the group, said he did not know why the voting had been suspended.
The cyberattacks and the premature closure of polling come shortly after three people, who were discussing plans for a small rally in Macau to support Hong Kong protesters, faced physical threats and received an objection letter from police. The event, which was eventually cancelled, led to dozens of Macau residents having their identification checked, and some were taken to a police station.
Kuok, one of the three organisers - with no political affiliations - said the idea of a peaceful demonstration was first floated two weeks ago in a Telegram group chat of about 200 members. But it only took a few hours before online threats started to emerge.
"Some people screen-grabbed our conversation and shared it on Facebook. We've seen posts and received messages from people saying that they would attack us," said Kuok, who only gave her surname.
She said such threats came mostly from members of Chinese-backed associations linked to the Fujianese community, which has grown in size and influence since the 1999 handover of Macau from Portugal to China.
In Hong Kong, conflicts have also emerged in recent weeks between anti-government protesters and members of the Fujianese community - originally from a province on the southeast coast of the mainland, and known for being loyal to Beijing.
According to Kuok, at least one of the event's organisers was followed by a man. In another instance, two men were seen taking photographs of an organiser's doorstep, she said.
Despite the intimidation, the three organisers on August 14 made a request to the police to organise a rally five days later. But authorities rejected it over fears the protest would send the wrong message to society.
"We are very sad and angry," Kuok told the Post. "The Basic Law (Macau's mini-constitution) gave us freedom of speech. But it turns out that a Macau person no longer has this basic right … I think our freedom of speech is totally lost."
Even after the event was cancelled, criminal investigators on August 19 were sent to Senado Square, where the gathering was supposed to be held, in what a police spokesman called a "routine operation".
According to the same police spokesman, 29 men and one woman were identified that night.
The police denied having detained people, but at least six men and one woman were taken to a police station for several hours. A student from Hong Kong was among them.
There was also a group of white-shirted men bearing the flags of mainland China who were identified by the police, according to local media reports.
"The right to protest is a fundamental right both in Hong Kong and in Macau," lawyer Jorge Menezes said.
"What is happening in Macau is grotesque and a lot worse than in Hong Kong, where - despite some objection letters - many protests have been allowed," he said.
The Macau-based lawyer also criticised the actions taken by the police - which included checking bags - on the evening the protest was planned, describing them as "draconian".
"The police is using illegal means to breed fear in Macau … They are acting for political reasons," Menezes said. "It's an attempt of repressing and asphyxiating any idea that may emerge."
But the president of Macau Lawyers Association, Jorge Neto Valente, told local TV channel TDM he supported the police decision to reject the organisers' request to hold the rally.
Meanwhile, lawmaker Sou - in his personal capacity, along with about 10 youths from Macau - published an open letter this week calling for democracy.
"When people think about Macau, it is always regarded as a giant gambling hub with enormous wealth. But beneath this mask of prosperity, there is a group of disenfranchised and oppressed people crying for help," read the letter signed by "a group of Macau people".
"We are a city with 600,000 residents who are deprived of a liberal democratic form of government. It is the version of Macau that few people know and even less care," it said.
The letter, which called for international support, noted that Macau was facing a similar situation as its neighbouring city Hong Kong.
"The only difference is that it is far worse here in Macau … our beloved city is now drifting towards authoritarianism," it said. "We understand that Macau is not significant to many people. But still, we hope our voice can be heard."
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