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Former Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang his wife Lynn (L) attend a news conference, during which he announced his candidacy in the upcoming Hong Kong Chief Executive election, in Hong Kong, China January 19, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's respected former financial secretary John Tsang on Thursday confirmed his intention to run for the Asian financial hub's top job in March, at a time of growing political tension and anti-China sentiment.

"I have big dreams," said Tsang, one of Hong Kong's most popular government officials, whose resignation from his job as finance chief China approved this week.

Tsang said he would strive to ease the growing polarisation and conflict in Hong Kong, such as large street occupations, a violent riot, and growing calls for independence and self determination that have frayed ties with China's Communist Party leaders.

"There is no simple solution to the discord we've witnessed in the past few years," he added, while emphasising the need for unity, trust and hope.

The city's next leader will be chosen by a 1,200-member election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists on March 26.

The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, under a "one country, two systems" arrangement that granted it a high degree of autonomy.

Speculation had swirled over Tsang's fate since he stepped down more than a month ago after a decade in the job, although China only approved his resignation this week, fuelling questions about the backing he enjoys in Beijing.

His main rival for the top job is Carrie Lam, the city's former number two official, who announced her bid this week. Some now see her as Beijing's preferred candidate, given the speed with which her resignation was approved and her campaign launched.

Four prominent candidates, including Tsang, have now said they will run, making for one of the most competitive contests since the handover. Behind the scenes, however, Beijing is widely seen to have a decisive influence over the final voting patterns of the election committee.

Incumbent Beijing-backed leader Leung Chun-ying surprised many in December by declining to seek a second term of office, citing family considerations.

Compared with Leung, who is generally seen to be a hardliner with deep ties to China's Communist leaders, Tsang has a more populist touch.

He is active on Facebook and struck a chord with many residents for cheering Hong Kong's football team from the stands in a World Cup qualifier against China.

(Reporting by Venus Wu and James Pomfret; Editing by Randy Fabi)

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