My Take

Hong Kong protesters, police get all tangled up in the numbers game

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 5:17am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 5:45am

There we go again over the numbers game.

Police said about 111,000 people took part in the protest against Occupy Central on Sunday. This is more than its estimate of 98,600 for the pro-democracy march on July 1. The University of Hong Kong public opinion programme put the number at between 79,000 and 88,000, roughly half its estimate for the July 1 rally. The Alliance for Peace and Democracy, which organised Sunday's pro-Beijing protest, originally put the figure at 193,000 but yesterday, Robert Chow Yung, the movement's co-founder and point man, raised it to a quarter of a million.

It's ironic that despite their opposition and mutual antagonism, both the pan-democrats and Chow's alliance are equally prone to exaggerating the number of their supporters at rallies they organise.

Every year, we go through this numbers game, though usually it's the pan-dems against the police. The former tends to exaggerate while the latter is usually too conservative. This time, however, some pan-dem sympathisers claim police were being more liberal than usual in their counting on Sunday. Who knows? Still, it's a big difference between 111,000 and 250,000.

Such disputes over numbers happen everywhere and may not be terribly meaningful. Usually, the disparities between official and organiser estimates happen because they are not counting the same thing. Organisers of this year's July 1 march claimed more than half a million took part, against the police figure of 98,600. The police tended to focus on counting the maximum number of marchers at any given time, while organisers tried to include people who left the march early and others who joined later.

There was a similar dispute in April over the size of the protest crowd in Taipei against a trade pact between the mainland and Taiwan, another case of half a million as claimed by organisers versus a Taipei police estimate of 116,000 people.

Of course, the alliance's case is more dodgy with allegations of people being bussed in and offered lunch or paid cash to join the rally. What these mass rallies show is how divided our society is and how angry many people have become. But this we already know, regardless of the real numbers.