HONG KONG (Reuters) - China on Monday approved the resignations of two of Hong Kong's top officials, including its financial secretary, paving the way for them to contest a March election to become the next chief executive of the financial hub.
China's State Council has accepted the resignations of financial secretary John Tsang, and of Carrie Lam, the city's chief secretary, the official Xinhua news agency said.
The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and its next leader faces challenges such as maintaining its competitiveness as China's economy slows, and reconciling longstanding tension between Communist Party leaders in Beijing and pro-democracy advocates demanding universal suffrage.
Speculation had swirled over the fate of Tsang, once considered a frontrunner for the position since resigning more than a month ago, but Beijing's silence until now had fueled questions about China's support for his bid.
Tsang, 65, could not immediately be reached for comment and has not yet made a formal announcement on his intentions.
Lam, 59, emerged as another leading contender last Thursday when she resigned and said she would contest the leadership election on March 26.
The next leader of the city of 7.2 million will be chosen by a 1,200-person panel stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists in what could be one of the most fiercely contested races since the 1997 handover, with two other high-profile candidates set to run.
China governs Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" principle that allows it a high degree of autonomy.
Hong Kong's incumbent, Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, surprised many in early December when he said he would not seek a second term of office.
China's State Council also said it had approved Hong Kong's development secretary Paul Chan to replace Tsang and labor and welfare secretary Matthew Cheung as a replacement for Lam.
Their names had been put forward by Leung.
(Refiles to fix dateline)
(Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by James Pomfret and Clarence Fernandez)