Veteran public opinion pollster Robert Chung says he’s determined to keep giving Hong Kong people a chance to say what they think, despite a sweeping new national security law, a police raid and smear campaigns from pro-Beijing groups.
The Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) hit the headlines last month when police raided its office in Wong Chuk Hang the night before a primary election organised by the pro-democracy camp to choose candidates for legislative elections.
PORI, commissioned to design the electronic voting system, was told the search was linked to concerns about a purported leak of citizens’ personal information, following reports that the organisation’s computer system had been hacked. Officers seized data from some computers in the office but made no arrests.
The timing of the raid fuelled speculation it was intended to suppress the primary process, which the government said could be seen as violating the Elections Ordinance and the Beijing-imposed security law.
Speaking to HKFP a month later, PORI Executive Director Robert Chung said the raid came as a surprise, but he would give police “the benefit of the doubt” that the search was just a “serious effort” to track down a crime.
He also backed the primary polls, saying the voting by over 610,000 Hongkongers was another form of expression of opinion. It was difficult to see it as illegal, Chung said.
“Although the applicability of the primaries results might have been obsolete, people would still feel empowered by this very rational, peaceful process,” he said.
Chung was referring to the unprecedented mass disqualification of 12 democratic election hopefuls and the subsequent postponement of the Legislative Council elections to September 2021, ostensibly due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Critics cited these two moves as examples of how Beijing was tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous region. They questioned whether PORI could still conduct public opinion polls freely under the controversial security law that came into force on June 30.
Chung said he was uncertain about what behaviour could be seen as breaching the broadly-worded legislation, which criminalises secession, subversion, terrorist acts and collusion with foreign forces. But as an experienced pollster, he said there were “no restricted areas” when it came to research topics, including studies on “sensitive issues” such as Hong Kong independence.
“We just do business as usual, until we are told, hopefully by a lawyer, that we are not able to do it anymore,” he said.
Chung said that while there were “floating anxieties” that the national security law would undermine Hong Kong’s freedoms and rule of law, his institute had a duty to demonstrate to society that it would maintain its professional standards.
“We want to show the world that we are not changing ourselves, or self-censoring ourselves, yet,” he said.
Chung was among the first to conduct large-scale public opinion research in Hong Kong.
He helped found the Public Opinion Programme (POP) at the University of Hong Kong in June 1991, the year when the first direct election to the Legislative Council took place — seen by Chung as the start of democratisation in the city.
Studies by the POP became important indicators of public opinion, when the last British colonial governor Chris Patten took office in 1992. A year later, the institute introduced tracking projects that reviewed the popularity of the chief executive and top officials, people’s ethnic identity and other social indicators.
In May last year Chung, who was 61 at the time and had reached the university retirement age, decided to spin off the POP from the university to run it independently under the name PORI. It sought a crowd-sourced startup fund of HK$6 million, while vowing to uphold its reputation as a “scientific, academic and politically neutral” organisation.
When asked how the POP maintained its credibility and neutrality, Chung said the organisation was “blind” to the identity of its civic sponsors, and has always adhered to strict academic standards.
He tells his sponsors: “Sorry, you don’t have a say in our operation.”
Nevertheless, the POP and PORI both faced what Chung described as “smearing campaigns.” He said he was often the target of these attacks, with pro-Beijing groups labelling him a “secret agent” or alleging the institute was funded with foreign money.
Chung said the polling organisation has also faced pressure from top officials.
In 2001, then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa allegedly put pressure on the POP to halt surveys of his personal popularity and of how favourably his administration rated. In 2011, then-propaganda chief Hao Tiechuan of China’s liaison office in Hong Kong openly slammed a survey on people’s self-identification as “Hongkonger” or “Chinese” as “unscientific and illogical.”
“I think deep down they know these data were important and the findings were correct, but politically they were inconvenient,” he said.
Chung said previous Hong Kong leaders all treated public opinion surveys differently; some saw them as a politically biased, while others did not take them seriously. For the incumbent Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Chung described her use of polls as “selective.”
He said Lam, as a technocrat, understood the usefulness of polls. But the surveys conducted by the POP over the past year reflected the fact that she was not trusted by the people, so the leader became rather “detached” from the polls, he said. Lam’s latest popularity rating, based on statistics released by the POP on Tuesday, was 26.9 per cent.
“She has poor records on almost every front — her policies, personal rating, government satisfaction — everything is bad. She’d rather not mention it, but she didn’t criticise them [the surveys],” Chung said.
When announcing she was invoking emergency powers to delay the Legislative Council election, Lam said polls showed support for her decision, without citing the pollster. Chung said it was the first time he had heard the Hong Kong leader quoting polls.
Local media later reported that surveys were conducted by pro-Beijing think tank One Country Two Systems Research Institute and pro-establishment Hong Kong Research Association. Both polls found at least half of the interviewees supported the deferral of the election.
“The media should have asked Lam to provide more information on the polls for fact-checking purposes,” Chung said, adding that government officials and political parties would not dare to cite “improper polls” if they were challenged by the media and academics.
After spending almost three decades on public opinion research, Chung’s original plan was to pass on the torch in two years’ time. He had hoped his last research project would be a large-scale review of Hong Kong in 2022 – 25 years after the handover from Britain to China under the One Country, Two Systems principle.
But the unforeseen changes in society, from last year’s mass pro-democracy protests to the promulgation of the national security legislation, led him to rethink his plans.
“I hope I could find my successor in a few years, then I can go back to my old hobby of astronomy… I prefer to look at the sky, the universe, a bit more than the human world,” he said.
Asked how he saw the future of Hong Kong, Chung said he has observed a decline in terms of freedoms and the rule of law. But he remains optimistic.
He shared a quote by Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it – always.”