How the government is playing fast and loose with surveys

April 27, 2015 15:36
Carrie Lam (center) waves from an open-top bus emblazoned with a slogan promoting the government's election reform proposal. Photo: HKEJ

Leung Chun-ying and his allies have been telling pan-democrats that more than half of Hong Kong people support the government's election reform proposal.

So, they should drop their opposition to the bill and vote for it, the argument goes.

Not so fast. The government is harping on something the rest of us are seeing differently.

Having witnessed the public reaction after the government unveiled the measure in the Legislative Council last week, we have reason to believe it's all a fudge.

That could explain why Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and other senior officials did not engage the public during an open-top bus tour on Saturday to promote the proposal.

Hundreds of people protested along the route but none of the officials addressed them.

Had they stopped and listened, the officials would have had a first-hand feel of the public pulse.

Instead, they might have decided they're not ready for prime time -- they don't have enough facts to back their claims.

An analysis by a group of University of Hong Kong (HKU) academics concluded that there's no mainstream public opinion supporting the government proposal.

The support rate has been around 50 percent since August last year, far from the "more than half" the government is citing.

It's possible the government has been selectively using survey results, keeping those that are favorable and throwing out anything that does not fit its purposes.

According to the HKU researchers, there have been 28 public opinion polls by different organisations including pro-Beijing institutions, media organizations and universities since the central government announced the 2017 chief executive election framework on Aug. 31 last year.

These surveys show that mainstream public opinion is split 50-50 between pros and cons.

The academics said affirmative public opinion has yet to touch 60 percent -- certainly not the kind of number being bandied about by the government.

Officials have to be seen winning hearts and minds, if they have to be loose with the facts, because defeat of the measure would be a great embarrassment for the government and for Beijing. 

As expected, government allies are doing their part to avert that outcome.

Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong has been religiously doing its own survey. In one poll, it claimed 60 percent support for the plan.

By contrast, a later survey commissioned by Cable TV showed a 49 percent affirmative rate. Several other public opinion polls by different universities were in line with the Cable TV findings.

The HKU analysis shows that questionnaires can distort results. 

For example, a questionnaire that says "maintain the status quo [of the existing small-circle election]" could produce a higher support rate by more 10 percentage points.

In fact, the public has misgivings about the "one person, one vote" mechanism because of a provision in the election reform bill that gives Beijing control over the nomination process.

In other words, voters can only elect candidates Beijing wants.

Real public opinion has been reflected in live phone-in radio programs. Last week, Lam was at pains to field a comment by a listener. 

The man compared the nomination process to having his daughter pick among three bad guys to marry because she is not allowed other choices.

Lam took notes as the man went on. Finally, she said voters can leave the ballot blank if they don't like the candidates nominated by the committee.

"If there are more than one million blank votes in the election, that could put pressure on the next chief executive and his team," she said.

If that is the case, what's the use of an election?

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EJ Insight writer