* Small "election committee" to choose new leader on Sunday
* Large protests expected against China "interference" in
* Beijing-backed candidate, Carrie Lam, widely expected to
* Political tension roils public, weighs on economy
HONG KONG, March 26 (Reuters) - A small electoral college
chooses a new Hong Kong leader on Sunday amid accusations of
meddling by Beijing, denying the Chinese-ruled financial hub a
more populist leader perhaps better suited to defuse the
The vast majority of the city's 7.3 million people have no
say in their next leader, with the winner to be chosen by a
1,200-person "election committee" stacked with pro-Beijing and
Three candidates are running for the top post, two former
officials, Carrie Lam and John Tsang, and a retired judge, Woo
Kwok-hing. Lam is considered the favourite.
"I hope we all remember on 24 March 2017, we Hong Kong
people have all come together and given our most sincere
blessings for a more united, a better Hong Kong," Tsang told a
rally of thousands of cheering supporters on Friday night.
Several hundred protesters marched on Saturday denouncing
Beijing's "interference" in the election amid widespread reports
of lobbying of the 1,200 voters to back Lam, rather than the
more populist and conciliatory former finance chief, Tsang.
Security was tight on Sunday around the harbourfront voting
centre with 2,000 or so police officers expected to be deployed
in the vicinity in case of unrest.
Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing
has gradually increased control over the territory even though
China had promised wide-ranging freedoms and autonomy under the
formula of "one country, two systems", along with an undated
promise of universal suffrage.
Many fear that Lam will continue the tough policies of
staunchly pro-Beijing incumbent Leung Chun-ying, a divisive
figure who ordered the firing of tear gas on pro-democracy
protesters in 2014 and who wasn't seen to be defending Hong
Kong's autonomy and core values.
The political upheavals with Beijing over the city's
autonomy and democratic reforms -- that many hoped would have
allowed a direct election this time round -- have roiled a new
generation and weighed on the city's economy, ranked 33rd
globally by the World Bank in 2015.
Political and social divisions, mainly over democracy and
anxieties over China's creeping influence, have dominated
political debate leading to some legislative and policy-making
paralysis and the stalling of major projects, including a
cultural hub and high-speed rail link to China.
While Hong Kong's proximity to China has been a boon for the
city, bringing in Chinese investment and spending, businesses
have also faced growing competition from mainland Chinese firms
in core sectors like services and property. Housing prices, now
among the world's highest, are widely seen to have been jacked
up by an unrelenting wave of buying from rich Chinese,
intensifying anti-China sentiment.
Many observers, leading businessmen and politicians have
warned Hong Kong can't afford another period of upheaval if the
city is to regain its former capitalist mojo.
Beijing's shadowy detention of five Hong Kong booksellers in
late 2015, and the disappearance of a Chinese billionaire this
year, have also undermined confidence in the "one country, two
While Beijing hasn't explicitly backed any candidate, senior
officials have stressed certain conditions must be met including
a new leader having the "trust" of China's Communist leaders.
"Just because a candidate is leading popularity polls
doesn't necessarily mean you should vote for (that person),"
said Leung Chun-ying on Friday.
(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Sandra Maler)