HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying said on Friday he will not stand for re-election in a 2017 vote for chief executive for family reasons, in a surprise announcement that throws open the race to run the financial hub.
Leung has been backed by the central government in Beijing and he said it had accepted his decision not to contest the March election.
"The central government has highly regarded my work," Leung told a news conference.
"In a family, my children only have one father, my wife only has one husband."
Leung did not elaborate but media has reported that a daughter has been hospitalised.
Speculation on a new leader for Hong Kong is likely to focus on John Tsang, the city's financial secretary.
All candidates have to be approved by a 1,200-strong Election Committee, largely made up of pro-Beijing establishment figures, which will then vote from among them for a new leader.
Hong Kong's next leader faces a host of challenges with concern growing over the influence of Beijing in city affairs as well as a fledging independence movement that has alarmed China's Communist Party leadership.
Big pro-democracy protests in 2014 demanded a one-man-one-vote election for chief executive but they failed to win any concessions from Beijing.
Tsang, who is less closely identified with Beijing's Communist Party leadership than Leung has been, has not ruled out standing but he has declined to say if Beijing has given him any sign, positively or otherwise, about standing.
Tsang has experience in city government dating back to before the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula to preserve its freedoms.
"Many people, no matter if they know me or not – or even those on the internet – are very supportive of me joining the election," Tsang in a radio interview last week.
Regina Ip, a former city security chief who is seen as close to the Beijing leadership, is expected to announce her candidacy next week, according to media.
Retired judge Woo Kwok-hing became the first person to enter the race when he announced his campaign on Oct. 27.
Reporting by Clare Jim and Jessica Yu; Editing by Sam Holmes, Robert Birsel