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Hong Kong handover: Fear of the future may spark exodus

The last comprehensive survey of Hong Kong attitudes before the end of British rule shows that economic confidence continues to rise steadily, although political pessimism is also on the increase.

These findings are contained in the latest Hong Kong Transition Project survey, released yesterday and conducted this month, as part of a decade of research on changing attitudes towards the colony's transfer to Chinese rule.

Michael De Golyer, the project director, says the survey puts a new perspective on studies which show Hong Kong people are confident about the future and have few misgivings about Chinese rule. He believes the mood is increasingly one of feeling that there is no choice. "That's a lot different from being optimistic," he insists.

The survey identifies a growing gap in attitudes between men and women and the young and old. Older men are much more enthusiastic about the return to Chinese rule than women and young people.

Dr De Golyer believes the new government will be dominated by "older males, born in China. These are the people who have views very different from most other people in society".

The bottom line, according to the survey, is that a solid 40 per cent of the population would try to leave Hong Kong if unsuitable changes occurred under the new regime. Few people cite economic reasons as a reason for departure, while most identify issues connected to civil liberties.

The survey shows the majority of the population is content to wait and see what happens but Dr De Golyer predicts that "if China fails on this, it looks as though a very large percentage of the Hong Kong people will head out".

The survey is bad news for Hong Kong's new leadership. Governor Chris Patten enjoys a total satisfaction rating of 57 per cent, slightly down on the 62 per cent he scored in February. However, Hong Kong's new leader, Tung Chee-hwa, trails with a satisfaction rating of 50 per cent, down on the 53 per cent he got last February.

Dissatisfaction with the Chinese government is high, with 51 per cent of those questioned giving a negative verdict, though this is nothing like the 64 per cent dissatisfaction rating recorded in 1994.

The news for members of the China- appointed Provisional Legislature is worse. Only 7 per cent of those questioned thought it would "best protect Hong Kong people's interests". Confidence in the existing elected legislature, which will be abolished after China takes over, was much higher, with 47 per cent of respondents turning to its members for protection.

The new administration's decision to scrap all elected tiers of government was reinforced with an announcement that although members of local government would be allowed to remain in office, the pro-democracy group would be outnumbered by the appointment of 116 new members, most of whom support Peking.

This addition will make the largely powerless local government bodies even more likely to follow the wishes of the new administration. This was illustrated yesterday when the Urban Council turned down an application to hold a democracy rally on 1 July, the first day of Chinese rule, on the grounds that the space in one of the territory's biggest parks was required for a gathering of women's groups, even though they had applied later.