17 September 2019
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam says the mainstream opinion of the public upholds the power of the nomination committee in the 2017 election. Photo: HKEJ
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam says the mainstream opinion of the public upholds the power of the nomination committee in the 2017 election. Photo: HKEJ

Beijing plays numbers game to gather mainstream public opinion

Beijing cares about public opinion. Otherwise, it would just order the Hong Kong government to implement its policies. And so it has asked the leaders of the special administrative region to conduct public consultations to get the public pulse, the people’s sentiments about the burning issue of political reform.

The problem is when there’s a cacophony of views in the community, and there will always be different opinions, especially in the case of controversial plans and policies. The solution is to look for the “mainstream public opinion”.

That’s the term used by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam when she announced the results of the government’s first round of public consultation on electoral reform. She said the mainstream opinion of the Hong Kong people is that the nomination committee has the power to name the candidates to the chief executive election in 2017, and that power cannot be undermined or bypassed.

The pan-democratic camp naturally raised a howl, and threatened to proceed with their planned civil disobedience. What happened to the opinion of the more than 700,000 people who voiced their support for public nomination in an unofficial referendum organized by Occupy Central with Love and Peace? What happened to the more than half a million people who joined the July 1 march to call for genuine elections in the city?

It now appears that Beijing, along with the Hong Kong government, insists that the mainstream public opinion is that which supports its plans for the city.

And so the pro-Beijing camp insists that the massive turnout for the Occupy Central mock polls and those who joined the July 1 march are only a small portion of the city’s seven million people.

Meanwhile, a group called Alliance for Peace and Democracy has launched a signature campaign to oppose the civil disobedience movement. Its target, to collect 800,000 signatures, is obviously aimed at surpassing the turnout for the Occupy Central referendum.

It’s become quite clear that the pro-Beijing camp is playing the numbers game. For them, the objective is to get the numbers — the bigger, the better. It’s no longer a discussion of the policies and their impact on the city and its people. It’s no longer explaining to the people why such policies must be implemented, and why the contrary views are misguided. It all boils down to numbers, a show of force. And they will do everything, probably including resorting to a few tricks here and there, to boost the number of their supporters. 

One of the latest examples comes from Hong Kong and China Gas (Towngas). The utility firm, controlled by property tycoon Lee Shau-kee, is reported to have told its staff to sign forms expressing their opposition to the Occupy Central campaign and return them to their department heads.

Towngas management denies that it is forcing employees to sign and submit the forms, insisting that it is a voluntary exercise of their right to express their views. No records of those who submitted the forms and who didn’t will be kept, the say. But some employees are fearful of possible consequences if they don’t submit the forms.

The company has decided to stop the signature campaign, lest it be accused of trying to manipulate public opinion on the issue of political reform.

The Towngas episode presents a stark contrast to the way Occupy Central conducted its unofficial referendum. Part of its success owes to the overwhelming desire of the Hong Kong people to press their demand for genuine elections, but also to the way the exercise was conducted. Those who joined the mock polls did so voluntarily, and their anonymity was guaranteed.

The pro-Beijing camp wants to replicate the same mechanism to voice out their sentiments against the opposition. So they are now mobilizing enterprises, schools and community service centers to boost their ranks. They are asking individuals to submit their names and signatures to join the fight.

But that’s precisely what’s wrong with their campaign. The exercise does not protect the anonymity of those who will join. It is not actually voluntary in nature.

Besides, it is very clear that its organizers are only after the numbers. There is no guarantee that each person is only allowed one form, one signature. In fact, even children and foreigners are allowed to participate. That paves the way for manipulation of the numbers.

Collecting 800,000 signatures is easy. They can tap local community networks through the district councillors’ office. They can offer free lunches during their gatherings and bags of rice, noodles and other necessities for elderly people during their sorties.

In fact, that’s the reason why the pro-Beijing camp can accurately calculate how many votes they need to win a seat in the geographical constituencies in the Legislative Council election.

That’s also why they were able to submit more than 100,000 forms in standard format expressing their common view on universal suffrage during the first public consultation conducted by the government.

Carrie Lam is not lying when she says the mainstream opinion upholds the role and power of the nomination committee in the 2017 election. She has those standard-format forms to prove her point.

Beijing must gain the mainstream public opinion in order to uphold its policies for Hong Kong. It also needs mainstream public opinion to set aside growing calls for public nomination and stop the opposition.

But after the pro-Beijing camp has collected all the signatures and gathered the “mainstream public opinion”, who will believe that they have the support of the Hong Kong people?

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EJ Insight writer