HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's Financial Secretary John Tsang resigned on Monday, the city's government said, and is widely expected to announce his intention to run for the city's top job in March.
There has been months of speculation that 65-year-old Tsang, who tops popularity polls, would step down and enter the race to become the financial hub's chief executive.
Hong Kong's unpopular incumbent chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, announced last Friday that he would not stand for a second five-year term.
The city government said Leung had already submitted Tsang's resignation to China's central government and the secretary for financial services and the treasury, Chan Ka-keung, would be acting financial secretary.
Cable News reported earlier on Monday that Tsang may not make an announcement on standing for the top job immediately.
Tsang was not immediately available for comment.
Tsang, known as "Uncle Pringles" for a moustache similar to one worn by a character on a potato crisp brand's packaging, is a U.S.-educated fencing and martial arts enthusiast who has been the former British colony's finance minister since July 2007.
Candidates running for chief executive have to be vetted by a 1,200-strong Election Committee, which was selected on Sunday.
The same committee will decide who will lead the city of 7.2 million people in late March.
Tens of thousands of protesters clogged city streets for weeks in 2014 to demand a one-man-one-vote election for chief executive but they failed to win any concessions from Beijing.
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.
Hong Kong's economy generally grew at a stable pace under Tsang and the government recorded surpluses every year. Last year's surplus was HK$14.4 billion (US$1.86 billion).
But critics say Tsang has failed to use the government's HK$842.9 billion (US$110 billion) in reserves to fund long-term social welfare policies, instead announcing one-off "sweeteners" in his annual budget addresses.
Compared with Leung, who is generally seen as a dour, hardliner, Tsang has tried to present a more gentle persona, more in touch with the public.
Tsang is also less closely identified with Beijing's Communist Party leadership than Leung.
Retired judge Woo Kwok-hing became the first person to enter the race and announced his campaign in October.
Hong Kong's chief secretary, Carrie Lam, and a legislator and former security chief, Regina Ip, have also expressed an interest in running.
Reporting By Venus Wu; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel