HONG KONG -- The race for Hong Kong's highest office is shaping up as a three-way scuffle pitting a Beijing favorite against two liberals as the mainland's growing involvement puts the city's autonomy into question.
The chief executive is chosen by a roughly 1,200-member election committee that includes business leaders from various industries. More than 800 this year support the mainland government, while a record 325 fall into the democratic camp.
Candidates must be nominated by at least 150 committee members to qualify for the final vote. Former Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor submitted 579 nominations, equivalent to about 70% of the pro-Beijing bloc, on Tuesday -- the day before the deadline.
Her lead owes largely to backing from the mainland's liaison office here. Zhang Dejiang, who chairs the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and is the mainland government's No. 3 official, had also met with leaders of pro-China groups here in early February. Lam is the sole candidate supported by the central government, he said at the event in the mainland's Guangdong Province.
But the front-runner is also viewed as cold-hearted in certain circles, especially given her refusal to engage with student activists asking for democratic elections during the Umbrella Movement of 2014. She does not see the time as ripe for direct election of the chief executive and has little support within the democratic camp.
One of Lam's rivals, John Tsang Chun-wah, served as financial secretary for nine and a half years. He is also close to Liu He, a key economic adviser to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Tsang is making efforts to communicate with voters through Facebook, and opinion polls show he has greater support than Lam among the Hong Kong public.
Tsang, whose campaign promises include restarting the debate on direct elections, drew just 35 nominations from the pro-Beijing and independent committee members due to obstructionism by China's liaison office in Hong Kong. He has qualified for the final vote, with 125 total nominations.
But many even in his own camp oppose Tsang, who insists on the need for legislation restricting acts of sedition and subversion against Beijing. More than half of democratic committee members nominated retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, who argues for upholding the rule of law forming a core tenet of the "one country, two systems" principle.
Xi could meet with Hong Kong envoys during the National People's Congress in Beijing this March and voice his views on the race for chief executive, the Ming Pao news outlet here reports, citing a source in the mainland government. Some supporters of the mainland have not taken a clear stance on the Hong Kong election, unsure of what Xi wants.
The final vote is anonymous, and committee members do not necessarily vote for their nominees. If nobody wins at least 601 votes in the first attempt, the top two candidates will face off against each other in a second round.