HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong, decked out in colorful posters and flags, voted on Sunday in district-level elections that will mark the first real test of public sentiment since pro-democracy protests crippled parts of the Chinese-controlled city last year. 

About 900 candidates are competing for the 431 seats in 18 district councils, where pro-Beijing parties currently hold a majority, at a time when people are divided over the pace of political reform.

The results, due late on Sunday, will provide insight into how a Legislative Council election due next year and a controversial leadership poll in 2017 could pan out.

The 79-day demonstrations last year, when activists streamed on to highways to demand full democracy for the former British colony, became the biggest political challenge to Beijing's Communist Party leaders in years.

The protests failed to persuade China to allow a fully democratic vote in 2017. Beijing says city voters have to chose from a list of candidates it has approved.

But they triggered what many in the financial center see as a political awakening, which has included a lively debate over how much control China's central government should have.

Scores of new candidates have come forward since the protests, including Steve Ng Wing-tak, 30, a former chef.

"Without the Umbrella Movement, I would definitely not have run for the district council," said Ng, referring to the democracy demonstrations. "I would've been more politically apathetic than most."

The city's streets were festooned with banners and flags, while candidates and volunteers in sashes and colorful windbreakers handed out flyers to passers-by.

"If you are fighting for democracy but not actually participating in a democratic election, you are a bit of a hypocrite," said 29-year-old candidate Edward Lau, who took part in the democracy protests.

Others said they would not vote for a candidate who took part in "trouble-making." 

"People should not stir up trouble," said a 79-year-old retiree surnamed Yung. "I have voted for a candidate who thinks this way."

One of the most keenly watched seats will be that of Albert Ho, a Democratic Party lawmaker who faces stiff competition in the gritty new town of Tuen Mun in the western New Territories. 

A bespectacled Ho, wearing a bright green T-shirt, told Reuters he was confident of winning and, when asked how he would feel if he lost, said: "I will only tell you if I lose."

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula that gives it substantial autonomy and freedoms, with universal suffrage promised as an "ultimate goal."

District councilors wield little power, acting more in an advisory role in which they can push forward policies for the government to consider.