Who calls the tune?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2007, 12:00am

Since June, the Public Opinion Programme at the University of Hong Kong has been conducting half-monthly opinion surveys on Hong Kong's political reform. The fourth one, carried out late last month, included questions that were based on proposals in the government's green paper on constitutional development.

The first question was: 'On the road map and timetable for the universal suffrage [in the] chief executive election, one of the opinions in society is to directly establish a nominating committee in 2012 to attain universal suffrage. Another opinion holds that a transitional phase shall be introduced before the actual implementation of universal suffrage in 2017. A third proposal is that Hong Kong is to undergo a transitional phase while universal suffrage should be attained after 2017. Of the above three opinions, which one are you more inclined to?'

Among the 1,007 respondents, 37 per cent chose the first option; 32 per cent the second and 20 per cent the third proposal.

A similar question, also from the green paper, was asked about the Legislative Council: 'On the road map and timetable for the universal suffrage of the Legislative Council, there is [an] opinion that universal suffrage should be attained in 2012, while another view holds that it should be attained, in phases, in 2016. A third view proposes attaining universal suffrage in phases after 2016. Which view are you more inclined to?'

Forty-two per cent chose 2012; 31 per cent preferred 2016; and 19 per cent even later. The pan-democrats, who sponsored the surveys, were understandably not happy with these results: earlier surveys had shown much higher support for universal suffrage in 2012. Even the programme's director, Robert Chung Ting-yiu, discredited the survey's findings, saying that such questions were 'error-prone' and had 'serious deficiencies'.

The questions I have quoted here, though, look sensible enough. If Dr Chung provided any analysis exposing the errors and deficiencies, it was not available to the public. Anyway, he decided to delete these questions from his later surveys.

Even a layman knows that questions about essentially the same issue, when posed in different ways, can elicit different responses. When public opinion polls on a controversial subject like political reform are carried out at regular intervals, and questions that produce answers favouring a particular inclination are withdrawn or changed - apparently without any compelling reason - people will begin to wonder.

Two new questions were included in the second survey on political reform, carried out in June. The first was: 'It is proposed that a sort of prior vetting mechanism would be added to the chief executive election to secure the acceptance of candidates by the central government. Then the chief executive would be elected by the public on a 'one-person-one-vote' basis. Do you support or oppose to [sic] this kind of prior vetting mechanism?'

The second was: 'There is another proposal that a prior communication channel would be added to the chief executive election, instead of a prior vetting mechanism. That means those who would like to stand for the chief executive election had to communicate with the central government first through this sort of channel before they could turn to be candidates, lest the chief executive selected by the public would gain no acceptance from the central government. Do you support or oppose to [sic] the setting up of this sort of prior communication channel?'

Some pan-democrats were indignant when stories about a 'prior vetting mechanism' and a 'prior communication channel' first appeared in the press. They denounced prior vetting of candidates as 'false democracy'.

The two questions were added to the survey probably because the pan-democrats believed the public would share their indignation and give a clear thumbs-down to vetting mechanisms. To their utter surprise and disappointment, however, 45 per cent of respondents supported a prior vetting mechanism, compared with 25 per cent who opposed it. Support for a 'prior communication channel' was even stronger: 52 per cent said 'yes' and only 25 per cent said 'no'.

When the survey was repeated two weeks later, the communication channel question was omitted, while the vetting mechanism question was reworded like this: 'It is proposed that a sort of prior vetting mechanism would be added to the chief executive election to secure the acceptance of candidates by the central government. However, some other holds [sic] another view that no prior vetting mechanism should be introduced as this would eliminate the real competition in the election. Which view are you more inclined to?'

The change was obviously intended to warn subjects that prior vetting would eliminate real competition: did they want a vetting mechanism or real competition?

Even with this warning, the vetting mechanism was still backed by 39 per cent of respondents. This was far from a satisfactory result for pan-democrats. The question was rephrased again, in the next survey, to suggest that the vetting mechanism was somehow inconsistent with the Basic Law. This time, the percentage of respondents in favour of the vetting mechanism hit 44 per cent, with 42 per cent against. Neither this question nor a close variation were asked in the subsequent survey.

One should not question the professional integrity of the pollster. But what about those who commissioned the polls? They are politicians with a specific agenda, aren't they? They are paying the piper. Aren't they calling the tune, as well?

Tsang Yok-sing is a directly elected legislator for Kowloon West