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Hong Kong residents have the least confidence about the future in 25 years, amid rising levels of distrust between the local and central government, according to a survey.
The results, published by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme on Tuesday, come amid rising concerns over what's been seen as threats to local autonomy — famously guaranteed for 50 years by China under the "one country, two systems" arrangement.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, has since 1997 been a Special Administrative region of China. The central government in Beijing is responsible for defense and foreign affairs, while Hong Kong has wide autonomy in other areas.
The territory of about 7.4 million people has its own laws and currency, while traditions of transparency, low taxes and light regulation have helped make it a major global financial center.
But the electoral system makes it virtually impossible for its chief executive, Hong Kong's top official — to be unpalatable to China.
The telephone survey — conducted from Feb. 28 to Mar. 5 — found that 39 percent of respondents expressed confidence in Hong Kong's future, while 55 percent said they were not confident.
That resulted in a "net confidence" reading of minus 16 percent, the worst recorded since polling began 25 years ago in 1994, it said.
The survey contacted 1,024 local residents, aged 18 or above, who speak Cantonese — the predominant local language. It received responses from 72.2 percent, and did not seek reasons for the answers given.
It also found that trust in the local Hong Kong government and the central government in Beijing fell to their lowest levels since current Chief Executive Carrie Lam took office on July 1, 2017.
"Further analysis shows that the younger the respondent, the less one trusts the central government and the less confident in Hong Kong's future and "one country, two systems," Edward Tai, a senior data analyst for the program, wrote in explaining the findings.
Hong Kong experienced months of demonstrations in 2014 for broader democracy that drew criticism from the local and central governments and a series of legal actions that eventually quashed them.
The Hong Kong government's press office did not immediately comment on the survey results when contacted by CNBC. The Chinese foreign ministry's office in Hong Kong had no immediate comment when reached by CNBC by phone.
Francis Lun, CEO of GEO Securities in Hong Kong, said he was not surprised by the survey results, citing erosion in Hong Kong's political autonomy in recent years, though that has so far not spilled over into the economic system.
"At least the financial sector is free from interference right now," he told CNBC on Wednesday. "But we don't know about the future."
Kurt Tong, consul general of the United States in Hong Kong, said there were "negative developments" in the territory in 2018. They include the banning of the local Hong Kong National Party, the expulsion of a foreign journalist and the disqualification of "a large number" of political candidates, according to a transcript on the consulate's website of a prepared speech on Feb. 27.
"Certain recent events in Hong Kong have raised cautionary flags for some U.S. observers, as they consider the sustainability of Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy going forward," he said, according to the text.
The local foreign ministry office criticized his comments in a statement on its website on March 3, calling for the consulate to not interfere in Hong Kong affairs.
"Hong Kong is China's Hong Kong," the local foreign ministry office said.