Since the handover, Hongkongers have never been so pessimistic about the city's prosperity. They are also less confident than three months ago about stability - but slightly more bullish about freedom, according to a survey released yesterday. One academic said the sharp drop in people's faith in the city's prosperity was a reaction to the impact of the Sars outbreak on a vulnerable economy. The telephone poll of 1,021 people was carried out by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme late last month. The respondents' rating of Hong Kong's prosperity fell by 0.39 points from January's rating, to 5.33 points out of a possible 10. The quarterly rating was the lowest since the handover. People were most optimistic about the city's prosperity in early 2000. Confidence in Hong Kong's stability has also fallen from January's 6.4 points to 5.92 points. The rating on democracy has dropped from 6.16 points to 6.09 points. But the evaluation of freedom in Hong Kong has risen marginally, from 7.2 points to 7.24 points. Robert Chung Ting-yiu, head of the public opinion programme, said prosperity was rated highest before 1997, but that since mid-2001 it was the issue about which people were least confident. The central government has said stability and prosperity in Hong Kong was the key to a smooth transition of sovereignty. Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, professor of public administration at City University, said although Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's administration should not take all the blame for the downturn, its failure to take adequate counter-measures had hurt its credibility. 'People use Hong Kong's level of prosperity to judge whether Tung has been performing well,' Professor Cheung said. 'He has especially big pressure to perform, as he lacks legitimacy [because he is] not directly elected.'