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The rule of law is the fundamental core value of Hong Kong society and an indispensable factor in maintaining the city's long-term competitiveness. In view of the multifaceted nature of this concept, perceptions and evaluations of the rule of law vary from person to person. How do Hong Kong people perceive the implementation of the rule of law in Hong Kong?
Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre (The Centre) today released results of the third round of 'Survey on public perceptions towards the rule of law in Hong Kong', revealing that scores of all ten aspects of the implementation of the rule of law were down across the board when compared to survey results in 2017 and 2018. All aspects, except for 'anti-corruption' and 'facilitation of economic development by the legal system', scored below '5' (rated from 0 to 10, with 0=not implemented at all; 5=half-half; and 10=fully implemented).
In the previous two surveys, more than 30% of the respondents found the general situation of the city's rule of law satisfactory while about 27% thought otherwise. Overall, the proportion of respondents feeling satisfied in 2017 and 2018 surpassed the proportion of those who were dissatisfied. On the contrary, 2019 survey showed that 52.2% of the respondents were dissatisfied with the current situation, far more than those who were satisfied (11.7%).
One of the most significant changes in 2019 survey was the sharp plunge in respondents' rating on 'maintenance of law and order and safety', which was the most highly scored aspect in the first two rounds of surveys and slipped to the second last place this year. By ranking ten aspects in descending order of importance, the 'judicial independence' remained the most important aspect of the rule of law. The importance of 'prevention of the abuse of power by the government', which was ranked in the middle in the previous surveys, jumped to the second place in 2019. It was noteworthy that 'prevention of the abuse of power by the government' was the lowest among other aspects in three years, plunging to its all-time low (3.61) this year.
The Centre's Chairman Mr Lau Ming-wai said, 'These notable changes in people's perceptions gauged by the surveys are a wake-up call for the Government. If Hong Kong people think that the Government is unable to maintain law and order and protect their personal safety, or the Government has abused its power, their perceptions and evaluations of the rule of law will be seriously undermined, leading to a crisis of confidence. Furthermore, people's dissatisfaction with the implementation of the rule of law as well as the general situation on the rule of law in Hong Kong has climbed to an alarming level. Everyone in the society should beware of this phenomenon. Particularly, the Government needs to be more proactive and transparent in its decision-making process so as to ease the worries of the public, thereby finding a way out for Hong Kong's long-term stability and development.'
The Centre commissioned the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of The Chinese University of Hong Kong to conduct the survey during 18 October and 4 November 2019. Hong Kong residents aged 15 or above were interviewed through telephone by random sampling. This was the third round of survey, which comprised all ten aspects of the implementation of the rule of law used in the previous two surveys.
Public perceptions towards different issues were often associated with the channels used for obtaining related information. In addition to the four perspectives examined in the past two years, new questions were introduced to gauge public opinion on the use of channels this year. Key findings from five perspectives are highlighted as follows:
Ratings of ten aspects of the implementation of the rule of law fell across the board
The following chart visualised the respondents' ratings for ten aspects of the implementation of the rule of law in 2017, 2018 and 2019 in descending order of the average score this year:
Respondents who were older, less educated, born in the Mainland, non-working and who favoured the pro-establishment camp gave higher ratings
The 2019 survey found that respondents who were aged 55 or above and attained primary education or below generally gave higher ratings regarding the implementation of the rule of law. In addition, scores given by respondents who were born in the Mainland were obviously higher than Hong Kong-born respondents, and those who were classified as other non-working status (e.g. homemakers or retired) gave higher ratings than students and working people. With regard to political inclination, the ratings of the respondents who favoured the pro-establishment camp were higher than those who favoured the non-establishment camp.
Age, place of birth, employment status, education level and political inclination were closely linked to the level of satisfaction of the rule of law
The overall level of satisfaction of the rule of law in this survey was apparently lower than that in the last two rounds. Respondents who were aged 15 to 24, born in Hong Kong, students, attained post-secondary education or above or who favoured the non-establishment camp expressed greater dissatisfaction. Relatively speaking, those who were aged 55 or above, born in the Mainland, in some other non-working status, attained primary education or below, or favoured the pro-establishment camp were more satisfied. Based on statistical tests, age, place of birth, employment status, education level and political inclinations were closely linked to the level of satisfaction with general situation of the rule of law in Hong Kong.
Approval rating on 'breaking the law for reasons of social justice is acceptable' surged in 2019
Regarding the views on controversial issues relating to the rule of law, the 2019 survey results were apparently different from 2017 and 2018. When respondents were asked if they agreed with the statement 'breaking the law for reasons of social justice is acceptable', nearly 50% of the respondents expressed disagreement in the previous two rounds of surveys, while those who agreed with the statement accounted for about 20%. This year, however, showed a reversal of response on this issue, with more respondents agreed (39.8%) than those who disagreed (31.0%). In the age group of 15-24 years old, six out of ten respondents (about 60.0%) agreed with the statement.
In terms of education level, 47.9% of respondents who attained post-secondary education agreed with the statement – the highest proportion among all educational attainment. It was worth noting that there was a relatively high proportion of student respondents agreeing with the statement, reaching 66.8%.
In response to whether people were 'obliged to obey the law' even with some disagreement, 38.0% of the respondents agreed with the statement, significantly lower than the 54.4% of 2018 survey. On the contrary, respondents disagreeing with the statement rose from 12.8% in 2018 to 27.5% this year. Respondents aged 15-24 were more likely to disagree with the statement, while respondents aged 55 or above tended to agree with that. Besides, 35.0% of the respondents who attained post-secondary education showed disagreement – higher than the percentages of other education levels.
By gauging respondents' level of agreement on the statement 'the judicial review system is being abused', 2017 and 2018 surveys found that the proportion of approval and disapproval ratings of respondents were similar – with some 30% respectively, while 2019 survey showed that more respondents disagreed (41.7%) than agreed (26.4%).
A new question on the objective of the rule of law was included in the 2019 survey. It revealed that 'protecting the fundamental rights and freedoms' was considered the most important objective (36.1%), followed by 'striving for a more just society' (31.2%). The importance of these two objectives, in terms of percentage, was obviously higher than that of 'maintaining social order' (26.8%) and 'creating a fair investment environment to foster economic growth' (4.5%).
Over half of respondents cited 'online media' as the most frequently used channel, yet more people regarded television as the most trustworthy channel for accessing information related to the rule of law
Another new question on the use of channels for obtaining information about the rule of law was added to this survey. The highest proportion of the respondents (54.2%) cited 'online media' as the main channel used, followed by 'television' (42.6%) and 'social media' (40.5%). Obviously, new media (especially online media) was the most frequently used channel for obtaining information about the rule of law. Respondents who were aged 15-24, born in Hong Kong, students and working people, who attained post-secondary education and favoured the non-establishment camp tended to obtain the aforesaid information through new media (including online and social media), whereas respondents who were aged 55 or above, born in the Mainland, in some other non-working status, who attained primary education or below, and favoured the pro-establishment camp tended to obtain the information from 'television'.
Nevertheless, the most frequently used channel does not mean that it is the most trustworthy one. When asked about the most trustworthy channel, the highest proportion of respondents chose traditional media, including 'television' (22.3%) and 'newspapers' (20.7%). In view of this, new media appeared to be a less reliable source of information when compared with traditional media. Assuming that public perceptions towards the rule of law were, to a certain extent, related to the information people obtained, the impacts of traditional media on public perceptions and evaluations of the rule of law and law-abiding awareness should not be overlooked. Given the vast amount of unfiltered information available, people should not merely rely on a single channel. They should verify the truth and source of information by cross-referencing reports and facts presented by different sources, including both new media and traditional media.
Nearly half of respondents felt inadequate awareness of the rule of law for Hongkongers – up by 10 percentage points from last year
The findings in 2019 showed that 46.7% of the respondents thought that Hong Kong people's awareness of the rule of law was inadequate, increased by 10.6 percentage points compared to last year, indicating worsening public perceptions on the awareness of the rule of law among Hong Kong people this year. Besides, 45.4% of the respondents thought that their awareness of the rule of law was adequate which was comparable to last year.
In conclusion, peoples' ratings on the implementation of different aspects of the rule of law in surveys in 2017 and 2018 showed a steady trend and the overall satisfaction level on the rule of law was relatively positive. However, both the ratings and overall satisfaction on the rule of law in 2019 have worsened. The latest survey was conducted amid the ongoing social unrests arising from the proposed amendments to the fugitive law. It was understandable to see the abrupt change in survey results from the previous two years to this year, as people's responses could be influenced by the political environment to a certain extent. As the society is facing serious social divisions and confrontations, respondents with different socioeconomic background, such as age, educational attainment, place of birth, employment status and political inclinations, have significant differences in their perceptions on the implementation of the rule of law.
The Centre's Vice-chairman and Convenor of the survey Mr Lawrence Lee concluded, 'The rule of law is not a panacea for all our problems. We need a law-abiding society to ensure that Hong Kong remains a safe and orderly city. As we all know, the rule of law has undergone a long and complicated process to become the precious cornerstone of Hong Kong. Our surveys, however, showed that Hong Kong people's awareness on the rule of law was considered inadequate. If we do not strive to strengthen the rule of law education and promotion to instill the right mindset in people, the successful and enduring foundation of the rule of law would be undermined in the long run. This issue should never be taken lightly. Given that more people are obtaining law-related information from new media, the Government should step up efforts in raising public awareness of the rule of law through different channels. It should also integrate legal knowledge into people's daily lives, and thus enabling the general public to deepen their understanding of the concept more easily.'