Hong Kong has voted in district-level elections that mark the first real test of public sentiment since pro-democracy protests crippled parts of the Chinese-controlled territory last year.

More than 900 candidates are vying for 431 seats in 18 district councils - where pro-China parties currently hold a majority - at a time when people are divided over the pace of political reform.

The results, expected 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.

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".

Humble umbrella symbolises Hong Kong protests

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

The 79-day demonstrations last year, when activists marched 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.

However, the protests failed to persuade China to allow a fully democratic vote in 2017.

China says city voters have to chose from a list of candidates it has approved.

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

Candidates have been lobbying hard across Hong Kong, although a wider choice of parties after last year's protests could make it harder for voters to decide at the polling booths.

The election will have a higher turnout than the 41.5 percent witnessed in 2011, according to a poll by the University of Hong Kong.

Source: Agencies