HONG KONG (Reuters) - China has dismissed as meaningless a proposed referendum on democracy in its southern gambling hub of Macau, a poll that would follow in the footsteps of a similar informal vote in nearby Hong Kong.
Three activist groups said on Monday they would stage a referendum among Macau's 600,000 residents to coincide with the widely expected re-election by a local council of local leader Fernando Chui in August.
China denounced the June poll in Hong Kong, underscored by a march by hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding the right to freely elect their local leader in 2017. Five student leaders were arrested after a later sit-in.
The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, followed two years later by the Portuguese-run enclave of Macau, now the world's biggest gambling centre. Both enjoy wide-ranging autonomy and free speech not permitted on the mainland.
"An administrative region has no authority to establish a system of referendum or organise any activity relating to a referendum," China's Liaison Office, which oversees affairs in Macau, said in a statement posted on local media websites.
The statement, issued on Tuesday, said the office supported the position of Macau authorities, who are subservient to Beijing.
An official body of 400 elects Macau's leader, similar to Hong Kong where a small committee of largely pro-Beijing loyalists chooses who gets on the ballot, effectively rendering the ability to vote meaningless.
Macau's government earlier said the referendum "had no constitutional legal basis, does not have any legal basis, is illegal and invalid".
Residents of Macau, home to 35 casinos and the only place in China where casino gambling is legal, adopted a passive attitude to politics during years of rapid economic growth.
But over the past year, soaring inequality and deteriorating quality of life sparked an unprecedented 20,000-strong rally to denounce a bill providing lavish perks for senior civil servants. The legislation was withdrawn.
Chinese authorities, who consistently crack down on dissent on the mainland, reasserted their authority over Hong Kong in a white paper issued before the vote there, a move that triggered fears of future intervention.
(Reporting by Farah Master; additional reporting by Nikki Sun; Editing by Ron Popeski and Nick Macfie)