Demonstrating defiance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 December, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 December, 1997, 12:00am

Hong Kong Chinese have already shown the world that we have more than the dollar sign in mind, by staging massive marches in the wake of the military crackdown on the student protests in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989. Now the findings of academic research further exonerate us from accusations of being apolitical.

A study, carried out by Dr Ernest Martin and Dr Gary Wilson of the Department of Communication Studies at Baptist University, shows that Hong Kong residents are as assertive in expressing their views in public as citizens of other democracies.

The pair have been tracking the climate for free expression in the SAR by conducting annual surveys since 1993.

The results of their latest study have recently been released in the form of a comprehensive report, entitled Hong Kong Speaks: Free Expression While Becoming China.

Their study, the fifth in a row, covered a total sample of 2,784 respondents. The questions for the surveys were modelled on a questionnaire designed for similar exercises under the auspices of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

'Hong Kong Chinese are very active in specific public expression activities,' the two researchers concluded. These include signing petitions and taking part in protests.

Respondents were asked for their views on and actual participation in a wide range of expressive behaviour during the previous five years.

About three out of five said they had signed a petition for a cause. The American study, on the other hand, shows only one in three people in the United States had expressed their opinions by petition.

During the past five years, 27 per cent of Hong Kong Chinese have participated in public demonstrations or marches. The tally is more than double the American norm of 13 per cent.

Meanwhile, almost one in 10 people have written a letter to or otherwise contacted a government official.

The same ratio applies to those who have approached candidates for public office. Sixteen per cent revealed that they had worked in a political campaign.

The ratio for those who have attended a public hearing of an organisation interested in public affairs stands at 19 per cent. Eleven per cent said they had spoken out in such open forums.

Fifteen per cent had written to newspapers and magazines, while 18 per cent said they had called in to a radio or television talk show.

Some callers to a weekend talk-back radio programme discussing the report's findings said they were surprised by their fellow residents' relatively active participation.

The character of public affairs phone-in slots has also changed. They used to be dominated by complaints about services delivered by individual government bodies.

Substandard maintenance of public housing estates, inadequate bus services and nuisances arising from illegal hawker activities were popular and recurrent themes.

Even in the late 1980s many of these aggrieved callers were not very articulate and often had to be prompted by the hosts to get across their messages clearly.

In stark contrast, callers are now more eager to comment on wider social policies as well as the officials and politicians behind them. Radio hosts themselves have often become targets for interrupting callers.

The latest survey in the report was conducted last April and thus cannot be used to describe the post-handover scene. Nevertheless, there are no obvious signs to indicate a drastic regression in this respect since the SAR Government has been in charge.

Fifteen items were tested in order to get a better picture of why some people were reluctant to speak their minds. The survey found that reasons for silence ranged from fear of retaliation and personal inadequacy to fear of involvement and hurting others.

Although residents have continued to be expressive, a disturbing undercurrent has emerged from the longitudinal study.

Drawing from other data from the surveys, the researchers detected a decline in public support for abstract freedoms of speech and the press.

They warned: 'It appears a pragmatism regarding freedoms, especially journalistic political freedoms and individual expression, has tempered support of protections all the time to the more situational view of depending on the circumstances.' The continual fall in public support for greater protection for freedom of expression could be due to various factors, including the decline of journalistic standards and the abuse of freedom of the press.

It could also be a result of a growing consensus for non-confrontational politics as encouraged by the SAR Government in general, and the Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, in particular.

What has constituted the trend is open to interpretation. The alarm bell, however, has been sounded. If media practitioners remain complacent, they might find themselves devoid of public backing in their forthcoming battle against Article 23 of the Basic Law - under which severe restrictions could be imposed under the pretext of national security.