Pro-democracy demonstrators hold flags to call for independence during a vigil for a protester Marco Leung Ling-kit who fell to…
FILE - Pro-democracy demonstrators hold flags to call for independence during a vigil for a protester Marco Leung Ling-kit, who fell to his death during a demonstration outside the Pacific Place mall a year ago, in Hong Kong, China, June 15, 2020.

HONG KONG - Support for yearlong pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong has slipped to a slim majority as the city braces for the imposition of Beijing-drafted national security legislation, a survey conducted for Reuters showed.

Protests escalated last June over a since-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions of defendants to mainland China. They later morphed into a push for greater democracy, often involving violent clashes with police.

The protests have resumed, but with far fewer participants, since China announced plans for the security law, which has alarmed foreign governments and democracy activists in Hong Kong.

The survey conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute June 15-18 showed the legislation is opposed by a majority in the financial center.

But the poll also showed support for protests dropping to 51% from 58% in a previous poll conducted for Reuters in March, while opposition to them rose to 34% from 28%.

'Impractical'

"It may be psychological, because Hong Kong people see Beijing is getting more hardline," said Ming Sing, associate professor of social sciences at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "If you keep insisting [on the demands], it’s impractical."

Events on the ground also point to a loss in momentum, with most demonstrations in recent weeks attended by only hundreds and ending quickly. Police, citing coronavirus restrictions, have not given permission for rallies recently and have arrested large numbers of those who turned up anyway.

Pro-democracy labor unions and a student group last week failed to garner enough support to hold strikes against the proposed security legislation.

The shift in backing for the protests has occurred mainly at the extremes, with those who strongly support them dropping to 34% from 40% and those who strongly oppose them rising to 28% from 21%. The number of those who "somewhat" support or oppose the protests remained stable.

The particular demands of the movement have also seen a drop in support. The request for an independent commission of inquiry to look into how police handled the demonstrations saw a 10 percentage-point drop from March to 66%.

Universal suffrage, another key demand, was backed by 61%, down from 68%. The resignation of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam was supported by 57% versus 63% three months ago.

Opposition to the demands rose to 21% from 15%.

FILE - Riot police are seen during a march against new security laws, near China's Liaison Office, in Hong Kong, China, May 22, 2020.

Samson Yuen, assistant professor in the political science department at Lingnan University, said support for the protesters' demands was "still high" but could have dropped because the security law has overtaken the protests as the main topic in the public discourse.

"Who would still talk about [protest] demands when the national security law is coming?" Yuen said.

Lam's office and China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which comes under the State Council, or cabinet, did not respond to requests for comment.

For the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points, 1,002 respondents were randomly surveyed by telephone. The results were weighted according to the latest population figures.

Opposition to security law

The poll was conducted when Beijing's intention to introduce legislation against terrorism, subversion, separatism and foreign interference was known but few details were available.

While the draft of the new law has yet to be finalized, key features of the legislation have since been released, revealing that Communist Party central authorities will have overarching powers over its enforcement, including final interpretation rights.

The poll showed 49% of respondents strongly opposed Beijing's move, with 7% "somewhat" opposing it. Support for the legislation added up to 34%, with the rest indifferent or undecided.

"I object to the law because the [Beijing] government is interfering in Hong Kong’s business," said engineer Charles Lo, 29, who participated in the survey. "It will also suppress our freedom of speech and hinder the democracy movement."

The law has stoked fears that Beijing is further eroding extensive autonomy promised to the territory when Britain handed it back to China under a "one country, two systems" formula in 1997.

Hong Kong and Beijing authorities have repeatedly said the legislation would target only a small number of "troublemakers," while rights and freedoms would be preserved. They say it will bring stability to a city rattled by the protests.

"Before June last year, I didn’t think Hong Kong needed national security laws because we were so peaceful and safe, but now I think it's necessary," said another survey respondent, Hui, a retiree in her 50s.

Independence support unchanged

The poll also showed that support for the idea of Hong Kong independence, which is anathema to Beijing and is expected to be a focal point in the looming legislation, remained relatively unchanged at 21%. Opposition to the idea grew to 60% from 56%.

Compared with the previous poll, a smaller share of respondents primarily blamed the local government (39% vs 43%) or the police ( 7% vs 10%) for the current state of affairs in Hong Kong, while a larger share blamed the pro-democracy camp (18% vs 14%) and the central government in Beijing (also 18% vs 14%).

Another finding was a rise in support for local, pro-Beijing politicians ahead of the September 6 election for the Legislative Council, known as Legco.

Pro-Beijing candidates were supported by 29% of respondents, up from 22%. Support for pro-democracy politicians remained strong at 53%, but dropped 5 points.

A split in lower-level district elections in November resulted in the pro-democracy camp winning over 80% of the seats.