HONG KONG (AFP) - Half of Hong Kongers believe the city's government should not extradite former US spy Edward Snowden, according to a poll published on Sunday a day after hundreds protested in his support.
The poll in the Sunday Morning Post found 49.9 per cent of respondents thought Snowden, who has dropped out of sight in the city after exposing vast US surveillance programmes, should not be sent back if Washington files for extradition.
The survey, carried out by the Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey at Chinese University, found that only 17.6 per cent of 509 respondents favoured the move, while 32.4 per cent were undecided.
The poll results come after Hong Kong's first major demonstration on the issue saw hundreds turn out in wet weather on Saturday to rally in support of 29-year-old Snowden outside the US consulate and government headquarters.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that retained a separate legal system when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, has a longstanding extradition treaty with the United States, but Beijing has the potential to veto any ruling. Analysts said public sentiment could play a role in the city's final decision.
"Public opinion in Hong Kong seems to be against the American government because of Snowden's revelation of possible American intrusion into the computers of some Hong Kong people," analyst Sonny Lo said.
"This public opinion includes, at this stage, both democrats and pro-Beijing activists," said Mr Lo, head of Social Sciences Department at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. "If so, the politics of preventing Snowden from being extradited back to the US has already begun."
Following Saturday's rally, the city's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said his government would "follow up on any incidents related to the privacy or other rights of the institutions or people in Hong Kong being violated".
Mr Snowden told the South China Morning Post last week that there have been more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, targeting powerful "network backbones" that can yield access to hundreds of thousands of individual computers. There were hundreds of targets in mainland China and Hong Kong, he was quoted as saying.
Mr Robert Mueller, director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, vowed last week to take "all necessary steps" to prosecute Mr Snowden, who has vowed to fight any extradition attempt.
Hong Kong prides itself on its independent judiciary and rights not enjoyed on the mainland, and its public has successfully pushed back against unpopular policy in the past.
Last September, the government was forced to back down on a plan to make Chinese patriotism classes mandatory in schools, after thousands took to the streets in protest ahead of legislative polls.
Beijing has not so far commented on the Snowden affair.