Think-tank's focus on numbers doesn't add up

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 April, 2004, 12:00am

The numbers game that accompanies major demonstrations in our city is a familiar one. Suddenly, it seems, the government regards it as a matter of great concern.

This is how it works. An estimate of the attendance is provided by the organisers of the protest. It always looks to be on the high side. The police then give their own assessment. This figure is usually a rather conservative estimate. Most people sensibly assume the true number lies somewhere between the two.

This routine is not unique to Hong Kong; it is one played out around the world. But the government is not happy with such a state of affairs. When a pro-democracy march was held on Sunday, a special monitoring team was watching. The researchers, brought in from outside the government, were hired by the Central Policy Unit (CPU) to provide figures of its own.

As a result, the numbers game took on a new dimension. The organisers estimated that 20,000 people attended the march. Predictably, the police put the figure at 10,000. Then came the unexpected development. A government statement revealed the findings of the 'professional survey' it had commissioned. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the number it came up with was even lower than that of the police. It was also remarkably precise. The attendance, we are told, was 7,627.

The presence of researchers hired by the government tells us much about the sensitivity with which it now regards demonstrations. But the value of such a move is highly questionable. Surely taxpayers' money could be put to better use.

It is regrettable that officials are not prepared to tell us more about the survey. Apart from naming the research organisation concerned, the government has so far failed to reveal the cost involved, the precise methodology used and which branch of the government will foot the bill. This secretive approach helps raise suspicions that the aim is to play down the level of support such protests attract.

The CPU, as the top-level think-tank, should be concentrating on the many far more taxing issues facing Hong Kong. It is supposed to be conducting in-depth research into complex policy issues. Arranging for a team of researchers to count people attending demonstrations is not consistent with that brief.

The think-tank has generally seen the monitoring of public opinion as an important part of its role. Certainly, there is much benefit to be gained from basing the advice it gives the government on accurate assessments of public opinion. But it is not necessary for the CPU to take responsibility for such surveys.

It is easy to see why some critics are already describing it as the 'central polling unit'.

When assessing the turnout at protests, the CPU's track record is not good. No one expected as many as 500,000 would attend the mass demonstration last July 1. But the CPU's prediction ahead of the march grossly underestimated the figure, putting it at only 20,000 to 30,000. It does not inspire confidence for future assessments. The fact that a survey is carried out by a professional research organisation makes little difference. Any figure produced at the behest of the government will be treated with scepticism.

However it is calculated, the precise turnout at a pro-democracy protest is not worthy of such intense scrutiny. It makes little difference whether the attendance on Sunday was 20,000, 10,000, or 7,627. The point the government seems to be missing is that the number of people prepared to spend a sunny holiday demonstrating their support for democracy was substantial. It is reasonable to assume that many more, holding similar views, did not make it to the march.

Peaceful demonstrations of this kind provide a far more revealing picture of public opinion than consultations. The events of July 1 are a good example.

The government should be focusing on listening to the voices of those who march - not counting them.



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