Internet forum for middle class comes under fire

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2005, 12:00am

Critics call for wider membership and greater public access

A government online forum created to gauge the views of the middle-class and involve them more in public affairs has been criticised by its own members, who say it lacks representativeness and risks becoming a mechanism to confirm conservative policies.

The Public Affairs Forum was set up in March under the Home Affairs Bureau, with its 526 members including top professionals such as academics, engineers, lawyers, architects, businessman and other social leaders.

It is aimed at fulfilling former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's wish to include more members of the middle-class in public affairs after the two mass July 1 marches in 2003 and last year.

But since it was formed, each member has posted an average of just two messages on the 11 topics covering major policy concerns.

While some postings are lengthy and discuss the topics in depth, others raise doubts over the representativeness of the forum.

There are also concerns that some members have little expertise on the topics involved, and that the non-transparent nature of the forum would discourage the government from listening to the views expressed.

Many members are also unhappy that only the government can initiate a discussion topic.

Rose Wu Lo-sai, director of the Christian Institute who is a member of the forum by government invitation, said the membership should be broadened and the forum opened for public access.

'Most of the views expressed were typical middle-class social values - such as calls for a free-market economy and consolidation of self-help capitalist logic. Such views are needed, but the forum should not be constrained to such areas,' she said. 'Coupled with its closed nature and the lack of transparency, the forum is more like a mechanism for the government to reconfirm its established policy, especially since most of the views expressed are mainstream views which did not radically challenge the government line.'

Another member said: 'You cannot really discuss anything in depth over the internet.'

Social worker Chua Hoi-wai, who is also a member, said the public might have the impression that the forum's members cannot represent their views as the selection process was not transparent. He suggests the government should create a forum representing a broader spectrum.

The Home Affairs Bureau defended the forum as a platform to gauge public views, but it said its operation would be reviewed next year. Information provided by the bureau shows there have been 24,000 visits to the website and 31 online polls conducted. While topics such as the development of the electricity market attracted only 28 replies, subjects such as sexual and racial discrimination received 176 and 162 responses, respectively.