People in Hong Kong are more pessimistic about the city's future than at any point in the past 25 years, a recent public opinion survey has found.
"People’s net confidence in the future of Hong Kong has plunged by 15 percentage points to negative 16 percentage points, a record low since the question was first asked in 1994," a survey carried out by the Public Opinion Programme at the University of Hong Kong reported.
Confidence in Beijing's promise that Hong Kong would keep its traditional freedoms and separate legal jurisdiction under the "one country, two systems" framework also dropped by 10 percentage points since the last poll was carried out in January.
"The younger the respondent, the less one trusts the Central Government [in Beijing] and the less confident in Hong Kong’s future and 'one country, two systems,'" senior data analyst Edward Tai wrote in a commentary on the findings.
The survey also found that Hong Kong people's trust in the city's government under the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam has fallen by 19 percentage points since January, while trust in Beijing fell by 15 percentage points compared with six months ago.
Conversely, Hong Kong people’s net trust in the government of the democratic island of Taiwan rose by six percentage points since January.
"People’s confidence in the future of China remains the highest among the three," Tai said.
Of a telephone poll of 1,024 Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong residents over 18, 34 percent said they trusted their city's own government, while 33 percent expressed trust in Beijing, the figures showed.
Just 39 percent of respondents said they had confidence in Hong Kong’s future, while 62 percent had confidence in China’s future, while 41 percent had confidence in the “one country, two systems” framework.
While the poll offered no reasons for the sharp drop in public confidence, it listed a number of key news events to occur since the last poll, including Beijing publishing its plans for greater integration between Hong Kong and nearby cities in mainland China, Beijing's very public support for the banning of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), and proposed amendments to existing laws that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China, to face both violent and non-violent charges.
Chinese president Xi Jinping's call for Taiwan to be "unified" with China, the resurgence of China-friendly candidates in November's elections in Taiwan, and the tabling of legislation banning "insults"
to China's national anthem were also cited as possible influences.
Disqualification of lawmakers
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said there are other, less recent, political factors that could have led to such a result over time, including the disqualification of six popularly elected next-generation lawmakers for "improper" oaths of allegiance, and the government's plan to introduce subversion and sedition laws mandated by Beijing.
"I am guessing that a lot of young people were enraged by the government's disqualification of [elected] members of the Legislative Council [LegCo], which was really unreasonable and which was a deep wound inflicted on an entire generation," Lui said.
"[Young people] have borne the brunt of this, and yet they are the ones who need to come forward to work for Hong Kong's future," he said. "How are they supposed to hold out any hope for the future of Hong Kong?"
Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor of social policy at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said he was not surprised by the results.
"I think there are a lot of factors coming together here," Chung said.
"The government has used a lot of tactics ... in particular since the [2014 pro-democracy] Umbrella Movement, to disqualify people [from elections], and has even extended these tactics to the rural committee elections, where there are people also getting disqualified," he said.
"They have also revised the procedural rules," he said, in reference to rule changes making it harder for opposition parties—who lack the seats to outvote pro-government members—to use filibustering to oppose government proposals in LegCo.
"While the majority of citizens may not pay attention to specific issues, overall, they have the feeling that things aren't going well," he said. "That's why I think that the overall [confidence] trend will continue to go down."
Democratic Party chairman and lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said the Hong Kong government has done little to reassure the public that there has been no warping of the "one country, two systems" framework to the detriment of the city's freedoms.
"One of the reasons for the fall in public confidence in the government is the failure of the government to act in the interests of its citizens," Wu said, citing failure to tackle issues relating to healthcare and access to housing.
Chief executive warning
Meanwhile, Lam warned that anyone "harming national security" in Hong Kong or attempting to "split the country" could face criminal prosecution under existing laws.
"The fact that we have yet to enact local legislation doesn't mean that we will turn a blind eye ... to attempts to split the country or endanger national security," Lam told reporters on Tuesday.
"Nor does it mean that we won't use existing legislation to deal with certain acts that should be strictly prohibited," she said, adding that the banning of the HKNP last September under colonial-era laws on sedition that were once used to target criminal gangs was "an obvious example."
The HKNP was banned because it was judged by security chief John Lee to pose an immediate threat to the government.
While Hong Kong police acknowledged that the party had not committed any violent acts, the government considered a ban necessary as “preventive measures” because “the possibility of HKNP using force to achieve its goal” could not be ruled out.
However, under the United Nations-endorsed Johannesburg Principles governing national security and human rights law, restrictions to freedom of speech on the grounds of national security aren't legitimate if they seek to "entrench a particular ideology," rather than to stave off a violent threat of a military or internal nature.
Reported by Lee Wang-yam for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.