* Beijing-backed Carrie Lam becomes first female leader of
* Activists decry China "interference" in leadership race
* Political tension roils public, weighs on economy
(Recasts with details of winner)
HONG KONG, March 26 (Reuters) - A Beijing-backed civil
servant, Carrie Lam, was chosen to be Hong Kong's next leader on
Sunday amid accusations that Beijing is meddling and denying the
financial hub a more populist leader perhaps better able to
defuse political tension.
The majority of the China-ruled city's 7.3 million people
have no say in deciding their leader, who is chosen from among
several candidates by a 1,200-person "election committee"
stacked with pro-Beijing and pro-establishment loyalists.
Lam, who will become Hong Kong's first female chief
executive when she takes office on July 1, won 777 votes
compared with 365 for her closest rival, former financial
secretary John Tsang, who polls show is more popular.
A third candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, got 21
Some scuffles broke out outside the voting centre between
protesters and a large contingent of police, who used metal
barricades to keep the demonstrations well away.
The activists denounced Beijing's "interference" amid
widespread reports of unprecedented lobbying of voters to back
Lam, rather than Tsang, chanting "I want universal suffrage"
when the result was announced.
"Lies, coercion, whitewash," read one banner. A big yellow
banner calling for full democracy was hung from the Lion Rock
peak overlooking the city.
"The central government has intervened again and again,"
said Carmen Tong, a 20-year-old student. "It's very unjust."
Hundreds of Lam supporters waved China flags and cheered
inside and outside the venue after Lam's win.
Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing
has gradually increased control over it even though China had
promised wide-ranging freedoms and autonomy not allowed on the
mainland under the formula of "one country, two systems", along
with an undated promise of universal suffrage.
Many, including opposition democrats, fear Lam will continue
the tough policies of staunchly pro-Beijing incumbent Leung
Chun-ying, a controversial figure who ordered the firing of tear
gas on pro-democracy protesters in 2014 and who was not seen to
be defending Hong Kong's autonomy and core values.
"She doesn't have a strong foundation, nor will she have a
honeymoon after she's elected," said political scientist Ivan
"But whether she will further divide society we still have
to wait and see what she does, whether she will continue the
approach of Leung."
All of Hong Kong's three other post-handover leaders have
struggled to balance the demands of China's stability-obsessed
Communist Party leaders, with wish of many residents to preserve
the global financial hub's liberal values and rule of law that
have long underpinned its economic success.
In late 2014, parts of the city were paralysed when tens of
thousands of protesters blocked major roads for nearly three
months to demand Beijing allow the city full democracy; demands
that were ignored amid some violent clashes.
Some see China's creeping interference in many areas of the
city including business, media, politics, academia and the
judiciary as tarnishing the city's international business
The detention in 2015 of five Hong Kong booksellers who sold
material critical of Beijing also dismayed many residents.
The upheavals with Beijing over the city's autonomy and
democratic reforms - have roiled a new generation and weighed on
the city's economy, ranked 33rd globally by the World Bank in
2015. Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing, warned this week the
city couldn't afford another five years of strife.
Hong Kong had been presented with an electoral reform
package, offering the possibility of a direct vote for this
leadership race, though only of candidates essentially
pre-screened by Beijing. The reform blueprint was vetoed in 2015
by pro-democracy lawmakers as "fake" Chinese-style democracy.
Political and social divisions have led 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,
bringing Chinese investment and spending, businesses have also
faced growing competition from mainland firms in core sectors
like services and property.
Housing prices, now among the world's highest, are widely
seen to have been pushed up by a wave of buying from rich
Chinese, intensifying anti-mainland China sentiment.
While Beijing never explicitly backed any candidate, senior
officials have stressed certain conditions must be met including
any leader having the "trust" of China's Communist leaders.
(Reporting by James Pomfret, Venus Wu and Katy Wong; Editing by