Hong Kong choose new leader amid accusations of China meddling

James Pomfret

* Small "election committee" to choose new leader on Sunday

* Large protests expected against China "interference" in

election

* Beijing-backed candidate, Carrie Lam, widely expected to

win

* 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

political tension.

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

pro-establishment loyalists.

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

systems" formula.

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)