Row takes toll on confidence

CONFIDENCE in Hongkong's political and economic future has plummeted to its lowest point in a year as a direct result of China's persistent attacks on the Governor, Mr Chris Patten, and the new low in Sino-British relations because of his plans for constitutional reform, according to a survey co-sponsored by the South China Morning Post.

There is less general optimism about the economy than at any time since the Gulf War, with many respondents saying it is no better than in the immediate aftermath of the bloody military crackdown on the mainland democracy movement in June 1989.

The latest findings are contained in the territory's longest-running survey on public confidence, which commenced in 1985 after the Joint Declaration was signed.

The poll shows that expectations on the political front are also slipping dramatically. In the two months since the last survey, the number of people expressing general confidence in the territory's future declined to 67 per cent from 76 per cent. However, optimism has yet to reach the lows of the summer of 1989 and has held up better than the economic mood.

Three out of four people attribute their lack of confidence to the current Sino-British row, while 64 per cent blame China's warning that contracts approved by the Government might not be valid after 1997, according to the Survey Research Hongkong (SRH) survey.

The poll showed there continues to be a bedrock of support for the Governor's reforms, with 30 per cent of respondents backing them. By contrast, only 18 per cent sided with China.

More significantly, about half the population was either non-committal or unsure about which side to support.

Perhaps more surprising were the six per cent who said they supported both governments.

However, a separate survey conducted for TVB showed increased support for Mr Patten's reforms, despite a slight dip in November.

Of about 1,200 respondents, 42.3 per cent said they would support the Governor's proposals, while 27 per cent said they should be withdrawn.

However, 30.6 per cent remained undecided, according to the poll conducted by the University of Hongkong's Social Sciences Research Centre from December 28 to 30.

Pollster Mr Robert Chung Ting-yiu attributed the slight increase in support to the lack of new developments in the Sino-British row and the long holiday.

When asked if Mr Patten's proposals would have a positive impact in Hongkong, 42 per cent of respondents to the SRH confidence survey in October agreed, while 16 per cent said they would be damaging.

Unlike in October, when age and sex seemed to make no difference in the level of support for Mr Patten, sharp differences have now emerged. Almost 24 per cent of men but only 11 per cent of women support the Chinese Government. Meanwhile, 45 per cent of respondents aged between 15 and 24 supported the British side, compared with just 22 per cent of those over 40.

In SRH's first test of the public mood since Mr Patten's return from his disastrous visit to Beijing, 80 per cent of the population still believe their personal financial situation will improve or remain the same in the next year, despite the general economic gloom.

This compares favourably with other polls taken recently which show the public is generally optimistic about personal prospects for the year.

However, people are cautious about how they will spend their money this year and are far less likely to consider major purchases.

Only 13 per cent said they planned a major purchase in the next three months compared with 22 per cent who said they would do so two months ago.

SRH's purchase intention index, a sure sign of the general mood, plunged from 94 following Mr Patten's October 7 speech to 83. The survey was taken from December 7 to 11, at the start of the Christmas shopping season.

The public's unwillingness to spend money appears to reflect uncertainty about the political future as well as a sense that the economy is less buoyant than before China's attacks began to undermine the markets.

The survey of 1,015 respondents aged between 15 and 64, carried out for the South China Morning Post and Ming Pao, showed the public felt the present economic situation had turned sharply for the worse.

Old or young, rich or poor, that same sense of unease was reflected, with 26 per cent describing the economic situation as bad, compared with 15 per cent in October.

Just 14 per cent felt the situation was good, compared with 26 in October. Those who classed it as average remained at 60 per cent, virtually unchanged from two months previously.