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Televised Debate Kicks off Hong Kong's First Leadership Election

Hong Kong's first contested election for chief executive has begun with an unprecedented live television debate.

Beijing-backed incumbent Donald Tsang and pro-democracy rival Alan Leong traded barbs in a 90-minute session Thursday.

The debate was surprisingly candid - even though no cross questioning was allowed and the public was barred from the event.

As a British colony and later as Chinese special administrative region, Hong Kong's top leader has always been appointed. Alan Leong is the first candidate to have won enough endorsements from the election committee to challenge the incumbent.

The 800-seat electoral committee will select the chief executive on March 25.

Leong, a respected attorney, pushed Tsang during the debate to commit to direct elections. Tsang responded by challenging Leong's understanding of how to handle public finances.

Leong has said that he does not expect to win, but is running so that Tsang is not elected without opposition.

The electoral committee is largely sympathetic to Beijing.

When the former British colony passed under China's control in 1997, Beijing promised a wide degree of autonomy and a transition to full democracy.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.