HONG KONG, July 8 (Reuters) - Three activist groups in Chinese-ruled Macau, the world's biggest gambling hub, are planning an informal referendum on democracy, an organiser said on Tuesday, following the footsteps of neighbouring Hong Kong whose ballot China branded illegal.
Macau, a special administrative region of China like Hong Kong, is widely expected to re-elect its current leader, Fernando Chui, in a vote on August 31.
But it is an official body of 400 that elects the 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.
"By taking part in a simulated referendum it may stimulate citizens' interest in fighting for a genuine democratic election," said Jason Chao, one of the organisers of the poll.
He said there would be more than 400 people taking part in the referendum, which ask candidates to choose whether the new leader should be elected by universal suffrage in 2019.
The civic movements in Hong Kong and Macau could prove to be the biggest challenge yet to Chinese rule in the two territories after Beijing ruled Hong Kong vote illegal. Several current and retired Chinese officials have warned in recent months that Beijing is prepared to unleash the army garrison to handle any riots in Hong Kong.
The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, followed two years later by the Portuguese-run enclave of Macau.
Unlike Hong Kong, where calls for democracy have grown over the years, Macau had remained largely apolitical. But over the past year, Macau residents have become increasingly vocal over perceived inequalities, with more than 20,000 taking to the streets in May in protest.
Macau is the only place in China where citizens can legally gamble in casinos. One of the world's fastest-growing economies, Macau is wholly dependent on the gambling industry with the territory's 35 casinos last year raking in $45 billion.
Last week in Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands marched at a massive pro-democracy rally which was followed by a subsequent sit-in by mainly student groups. Five organisers have since been charged by police.
The march on July 1 came after an unofficial referendum on democracy in which more than 10 percent of Hong Kong's population voted for the public to be able to nominate candidates for the Chinese territory's leader.
The groups organising the poll, Macau Conscience, the Macao Youth Dynamics and the Open Macau Society, are planning to hold the referendum from August 24-30 offering both voting online and at polling stations. (Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Nick Macfie)