Hong Kong second-in-command Carrie Lam resigned on Thursday, signaling her intention to run for the city's top job in elections in March.
Lam stepped down from her position as head of the civil service, the second-highest-ranking role in the city after that of chief executive.
"This morning, I tended my resignation letter from the post of secretary for the administration to the chief executive, asking him to seek approval from the central People's Government [in Beijing]," Lam told reporters.
"In it, I explained that my reason for resigning was that I plan to stand in the next election for chief executive, subject to approval from the central government," she said.
The March 26 elections will choose a replacement for the highly unpopular incumbent Leung Chun-ying, who has said he won't run again due to family reasons.
The controversial elections were at the heart of mass pro-democracy protests that occupied major roads in Hong Kong for 79 days in late 2014, will be decided by a 1,200-member pro-Beijing committee.
Political commentator Johnny Lau, a former journalist with pro-Beijing media, said a clear favorite has yet to emerge among officials in Beijing.
Instrumental Beijing supporter
But he said Lam likely had higher standing in the eyes of Chinese officials than Leung.
"She has basically been in charge of political matters this whole time, including promoting the government's proposed changes to the election system," Lau said.
A democratic upgrade had been planned for this year, but China's parliament stepped in on Aug. 31, 2014 to insist that candidates would have to be vetted by Beijing, a move that would rule out any pan-democratic politicians, sparking the Occupy Central movement.
Lam was instrumental in supporting Beijing's proposed changes at the time, Lau said.
"When Beijing appraises a Hong Kong official, they don't look at whether they are talented or not," he said. "The most important thing is their political loyalty."
In 2014, protesters derided Leung for refusing to take issue with Beijing over voting reforms, called for his resignation, and taunted him with the nickname "689," in a snide reference to the number of votes that won him the job.
Now, Lam is likely to face off against another government official, financial secretary John Tsang, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, lawmaker and former security chief Regina Ip, and Wu Sai-chuen, a former member of the the pro-China Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).
Mockery of Hong Kong's autonomy
Candidates must win the backing of at least 150 members of the Election Committee before being entered onto the slate for the March vote. The winner takes office on July 1, subject to Beijing's approval.
Lau said Lam likely has the edge over rival Tsang.
"Right now, they are starting to lay the cards on the table, and I think she has a better hand where Beijing is concerned," he said.
Lam, 59, first joined the civil service under British colonial rule during the 1980s, and was rapidly promoted following the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
She took public office for the first time in 2007, as head of the Development Bureau, before being appointed Leung's second-in-command following his election in 2012.
Political columnist Frank Chen said the fact that top officials wait for approval from Beijing when there is nothing in law to require them to stay in post makes a mockery of the "high degree of autonomy" promised to Hong Kong under terms of the handover treaty.
Hitting out at the need to "secure an imperial consent" to leave, Chen wrote: "There’s no clause in the Basic Law stating that resignation by an official in the special administrative region is subject to Beijing’s approval."
"Local laws bar incumbent officials from running without resigning first, but a government job is like any other job: you give a 30-day notice and then you’re free to go," he wrote.
Lam's announcement comes a day after London-based rights group Amnesty International said human rights in Hong Kong were at their lowest ebb since the handover.
The group said Hong Kong officials had "failed on many fronts" to protect the city's traditional rights and freedoms, citing a lack of official engagement with the disappearances of five Hong Kong booksellers detained by Chinese police for selling controversial political books to customers across the internal immigration border in mainland China.
The annual report said there are now doubts over whether the physical safety of Hong Kong people is sufficiently guaranteed.
Last weekend, two former student leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement, Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, were attacked by pro-Beijing protesters and alleged members of criminal gangs, during and on their return from a trip to Taiwan.
A group of activists gathered outside police headquarters in Hong Kong on Wednesday, calling for the attack on Law to be fully investigated.
The attack wasn't an isolated incident since Leung took up his post in 2012, they said.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Chen Pan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.