December 31, 2019 / 1:04 PM / 25 days ago

Exclusive: Hong Kongers support protester demands; minority wants independence from China - Reuters poll

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s protest movement is supported by 59% of city residents polled in a survey conducted for Reuters by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, with more than a third of respondents saying they had attended an anti-government demonstration.

Protesters rally to remember the deaths and injuries during the months of protests, in Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong, China, December 30, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Supporters of the protests outnumbered opponents by a ratio of nearly two to one, with 30% percent saying they were opposed. Of those polled, 57% said they favoured the resignation of Carrie Lam, the city’s leader. Lam was a particular target of the anti-government demonstrations that gripped Hong Kong for most of 2019 after she attempted to push through a deeply unpopular extradition bill.

Nevertheless, only 17% expressed support for seeking independence from China, and 20% were opposed to “the current path of one country, two systems” - the arrangement under which Hong Kong is governed by Beijing.

Many protesters say Beijing has used its authority under the system to gradually undermine certain freedoms - such as an independent judiciary and freedom of speech - that are supposed to be guaranteed at least until 2047 under the arrangement.

The results of the survey, involving 1,021 people and conducted from Dec. 17-20, also showed a large plurality of respondents mainly blamed the Hong Kong government for the crisis, the worst civil unrest to hit the city in decades, rather than the central government in Beijing.

“The figures are consistent with Carrie Lam’s low popularity rate, which shows her ability to lead the government is very low,” said Ma Ngok, a professor of government and public administration at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Resistance and protests will continue next year.”

A Hong Kong government spokesman said in a response to the poll results that Lam and her team would “continue to engage the people through dialogue”.

China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council, or cabinet, did not respond to a request for comment.

The protests erupted following an attempt by the Hong Kong government to introduce a bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial in courts that are controlled by the Communist Party.

The bill was later withdrawn, but the protests have escalated into a broader call for greater democratic representation in the city and an inquiry into alleged police brutality in dealing with the protests.

The results of the poll reinforce claims by protesters that their key demands are broadly backed by the general public, according to Samson Yuen, a political science professor at Lingnan University. They also counter Beijing’s characterisation of the protests as a movement aimed at undermining its sovereignty over the city.

The poll conducted for Reuters also shows little public support for the denunciations of China by hardline protesters, some of whom have called for independence for Hong Kong or scrapping the “one country, two systems” model.

“People go on the street due to their dissatisfaction with police and the political system, not asking for independence,” Yuen said.

The survey was the first in a series commissioned by Reuters to gauge public sentiment in Hong Kong amid its worst political crisis in decades. The Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute is an independent polling firm.

Among the key findings:

— 57% of respondents said they wanted Lam to resign.

— 37% of respondents said they had taken part in protests in 2019, versus 63% who had not.

— 47% said the Hong Kong government deserved most of the blame for the unrest in the city, 14% blamed the pro-democracy camp the most, and 12% mainly blamed the central government in Beijing.

— 41% of respondents said they “strongly oppose” Hong Kong independence, and 26% said they “somewhat oppose” it. Only 8% said they “strongly support” independence, and 9% “somewhat support” it.

— 74% said they wanted an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality in handling the protests. Only 9% said the police deserved most of the blame for the unrest.

The Hong Kong government has rejected calls by protesters and opposition politicians to set up an independent inquiry into police actions, saying that its oversight of the force is adequate.

SUPPORT FOR INQUIRY

The people of Hong Kong “are not seeking a quick fix”, said Yuen, the Lingnan University professor. “They think Carrie Lam should be held accountable but it’s not the most important thing. They want an independent inquiry to improve the relationship between police and people.”

The Hong Kong police did not respond to a request for comment.

Many protesters say they are incensed by what they see as an abuse of power by the police in dealing with the unrest. The police say they have used reasonable and appropriate force against illegal acts including vandalism and rioting.

Since Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, many people in the city of 7.5 million have become increasingly angered by what they see as efforts by China to undermine the city’s autonomy and roll back freedoms.

When asked whether Hong Kong should keep on its “current path” of one country, two systems, 39% of respondents said they “strongly support” the model, and 29% said they “somewhat support” it.

China has denounced acts of violence in the protests, which it sees as being aimed at undermining Chinese sovereignty.

The large number of respondents saying they had participated in a protest chime with the huge demonstrations the city saw in 2019. On June 9, an anti-extradition march drew an estimated one million people; that was followed a week later by an even larger demonstration.

Widespread discontent was also reflected in city-wide elections for district council seats on Nov. 24, in which pro-democracy candidates won nearly 90% of the 450 seats. While voter participation is usually low in elections for the councils, which oversee things like garbage collection, nearly three million people in the city voted in the November election, or 71% of registered voters. It was the highest turnout in Hong Kong electoral history.

Slideshow (2 Images)

The degree of support for the protests varied sharply by age, education and whether respondents were born in Hong Kong. Younger, better-educated people born in Hong Kong, for example, were far more likely to support or take part in the protests, the poll showed. [nL4N2941EI]

For the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, respondents were randomly polled by telephone in Cantonese, which is spoken by the vast majority of people in Hong Kong. The results were weighted according to the latest population figures in Hong Kong.

Reporting by Hong Kong Newsroom. Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Philip McClellan

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