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HK people to China: Heed public opinion

/ 05:08 AM December 01, 2018

Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region since 1997 after being a British territory for over 150 years, is the one part of China where opinion polls can still be done freely—hopefully, until at least 2047.  The foremost polling institution is the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program (HKUPOP), established in 1991 by Dr. Robert Chung, and directed by him to this day.

Robert Chung has been an icon for pollsters worldwide since 2000, when he formally complained that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Tung Chee-Hwa, was pressuring the university’s top officials to discontinue his opinion polls about Tung and his government.  After 11 days of open hearings, an HKU legal panel concluded that Chung was telling the truth and his opponents’ witnesses were not.  The saga closed with the resignations of the HKU vice-chancellor and pro-vice-chancellor just before the university council met to vote to accept the panel’s report (Wikipedia).

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Robert and I are old friends. We were, for many years, the World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR) representatives for Hong Kong and the Philippines. He is president of the regional chapter, WAPOR-Asia, organized in 2017.

When I met him last June in Hong Kong, and discussed the SWS surveys as of that time, he readily saw that polls on the South China Sea disputes, which involve many countries, are proper for WAPOR-Asia. He expressed willingness for HKUPOP to survey the matter in Hong Kong, if a sponsor could be found. Since Hong Kong is an international city by tradition, he says its people may look at territorial disputes differently from people living in the mainland.

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I assisted by introducing him to Albert del Rosario, the former foreign affairs secretary of the Philippines, whose advocacy is well-known. Mr. Del Rosario subsequently made a modest grant to HKUPOP to ask five basic questions on the topic, with HKUPOP maintaining academic

freedom to design the questionnaire, analyze the data, and report the findings. On Nov. 1-6, 2018, HKUPOP interviewed a sample of 1,000 adult Cantonese-speaking residents of Hong Kong (for an error margin of plus/minus 3.2 percent), by landlines and mobile phones.

“Most Hong Kong people hope to see different governments follow the opinion of the people in settling the South China Sea disputes.” This was the main heading of the HKUPOP report that came out last week (https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/report/south_china_sea_2018/index.html). Its terms “governments” and “a government” refer to parties in the dispute, without identifying any one. But, of course, China would be uppermost in the respondents’ minds.

The sequence of five survey items and their surface findings are:

(1) 70 percent of Hong Kong people were aware of the disputes. (2) 16 percent of them claimed to have extensive/adequate knowledge of the disputes. (3) 58 percent of them considered it important for a government to follow its people’s opinion in settling these disputes; 5 percent said “half-half,” and 18 percent considered it not important. (4) 47 percent considered it important for a government to follow public opinion in the world in settling these disputes; 9 percent said “half-half” and 30 percent called it not important. (5) 51 percent were aware of the ruling of an international tribunal in 2016 regarding the South China Sea disputes.

These items support the theme that public opinion in countries directly concerned, and in the world as a whole, has a role in settling cross-country disputes.

Until genuine survey freedom comes to China, the true opinions of the Chinese people cannot emerge and be known to all. Meanwhile, as pollsters in the Philippines and Hong Kong are joined by their freedom-loving colleagues in Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, what will happen to world opinion?

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Contact mahar.mangahas@sws.org.ph.

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TAGS: British territory, column, Hong Kong, opinion, Robert Chung
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