Confidence rising despite deadlock

PUBLIC confidence in the economic and political situation is rising despite the stalemate between China and Britain over Governor Mr Chris Patten's controversial constitutional reform bill.

However, according to a new survey for the South China Morning Post, exactly half the population believes the bill's publication in the Government gazette has decreased confidence in the territory and the number who support the British or Hongkong Government in the dispute is falling.

Nonetheless, although support for the British side has fallen from 30 per cent to 25 per cent since the height of the row at the end of last year, it is still greater than the backing for the Chinese Government, which remains unchanged at 19 per cent.

The survey found further evidence of the public's contradictory attitudes in the fact that 56 per cent felt unable to give an opinion on the political row, yet some 71 per cent were confident in the territory's future.

That is a slight increase on the 67 per cent who expressed confidence at the time of the last poll in early December.

Mr Louis Tong, director of Survey Research Hongkong (SRH), said although general political and economic confidence appeared to be rising ''as the negative impact of the Sino-British row begins to wear out'', the gazetting of the reform bill had had a negative impact on people's outlook.

''After its publication, they appear to be even more bewildered, with more people becoming either noncommittal or unsure which side to support,'' he said.

The SRH poll, which was jointly commissioned with Ming Pao, was conducted between March 19 and 25 - a week after the bill was gazetted and immediately following the angry attacks on Mr Patten by Chinese Premier Mr Li Peng and the Director of the Hongkongand Macau Affairs Office, Mr Lu Ping.

However, it may also reflect a more buoyant public appreciation of the economy in the wake of last month's relatively generous budget.

The SRH political confidence index rose from a December low of 89 to 91, while the economic confidence index bounced back from 85 to 89. (January 1985 [immediately following the Joint Declaration] = 100 for both indices).

The survey shows a slight increase from 14 to 20 per cent in the number of respondents who regard the present economic situation as good, and a similar decrease from 26 to 21 per cent who felt it to be unsatisfactory.

However, 83 per cent think their personal financial situation will either im prove or remain unchanged in the coming year, up a little from 80 per cent in December. That perception is strongly reflected in the SRH purchase intention index which rebounds a full 10 points this quarter, from 83 to 93 (April 1988 = 100), following an increase from 13 to 18 per cent in the number of respondents who said they were more likely to make major purchases in the next three months.

Liberal Party leader Mr Allen Lee Peng-fei said the contradictory results reflected the fact that people were more concerned now with economic matters that affected their daily lives than with political reforms that were going to be shortlived and were ''no big deal anyway''.

''People are saying let's get on with it . . . These political reforms are not our future,'' he said.

The Liberal Party would do everything it could to get the two sides talking again. But if there were no talks it would carry on with its work, he said.

''We couldn't be bothered with Patten, anyway.'' However, United Democrats deputy leader Mr Yeung Sum was unconcerned at the number of respondents giving noncommittal answers on the effect of the gazettal.

''The question is very problematic. It's not that simple. People's confidence is not simply related to whether it's gazetted or not,'' he said.

On the contrary, he said, the fact that 25 per cent still supported the British side in the wake of the attacks by ''every Chinese leader except Deng Xiaoping himself'' was ''very amazing''.

Under those circumstances, it was only a slight drop from the British side's consistent 30 per cent support.

''There is still a strong call for a faster development of democracy, although people want the governments to talk,'' he said.

Mr Yeung attributed the rise in general confidence to the fact that Hongkong people were ''getting used to China's united front tactics'' and that the economy was still strong enough for their livelihood to be unaffected.