Numbers man Robert Chung faces down his critics again

Veteran pollster Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu delivered a typically strident defence of his work after it was questioned in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 5:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 5:05am

In 2000, amid a public inquiry into allegations of political interference with opinion polls, the veteran University of Hong Kong pollster Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu offered a simple response to those seeking to discredit him: "You will fail, sir".

That line may have crossed Chung's mind again this week as his work was called into question at the National People's Congress in Beijing.

No stranger to controversy, the director of the university's public opinion programme was dragged into a political row in recent days after Peter Lee Ka-kit, a son of property tycoon Lee Shau-kee, complained about Dr Chung's polls during a session in Beijing attended by senior Chinese cadre Zhang Dejiang - one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee and chairman of the National People's Congress.

Lee criticised Chung for releasing polls at "critical moments" with findings unfavourable to the Leung Chun-ying administration. Lee even proposed setting up a new agency that could conduct polls to counter Chung's work.

Known for his sharp mind and pointed wit, Chung dismissed Lee's attacks, and likened himself to the child in the tale The Emperor's New Clothes, who dares to speak the truth.

"But I demand something more than what the child does," Chung said in a recent interview. "The child has done it out of his intuition. For me, I report what I see based on scientific [findings]. This is the method social science uses to reach a conclusion.

"The emperor will of course be kept very happy because those beside him do not tell him the truth … He is blinded from the fact that, just a few steps away, the people are unhappy about him," said Chung.

Over the weekend, some Chinese-language media accused Chung's polling of exaggerating Leung Chun-ying's unpopularity, something the pollster denied. The signs are that the row kicked off by Lee is dying down, probably because not many people - even in the pro-Beijing camp - took his views seriously.

To Chung, it was likely a case of déjà vu.

In 2000, he was caught up in a much bigger controversy, one that eventually forced the resignation of the university vice-chancellor at the time, Professor Cheng Yiu-chung, for interfering with academic freedom.

The "Robert Chung saga", as the episode became known, started with an article Chung contributed to the South China Morning Post in which he accused the chief executive at the time, Tung Chee-hwa, of having given him a clear message "via a special channel" that his surveys on Tung's popularity were not welcome and should stop.

The alleged interference prompted a public inquiry, which brought revelations of the inglorious role played by the chief executive's closest aide, Andrew Lo Cheung-on, in the affair, which ultimately dealt a severe blow to Tung's authority.

A long-time friend and mentor of Chung, Professor Wong Siu-lun, also resigned, and serious concerns were raised over the state of academic freedom at the university.

Chung himself did not emerge unscathed from the affair, with many questioning the career academic's handling of the huge political scandal.

At its outset he fuelled conspiracy theories by repeatedly refusing to identify the "special channel" which had allegedly been used by Tung to voice his displeasure. Some attacked Chung's integrity, suggesting he was part of a concerted campaign to discredit Tung.

And he pulled the Post into the controversy, telling the inquiry the newspaper had misquoted him and denying having said - as the newspaper reported - that Tung had asked him to stop conducting polls on his popularity and the government's credibility.

The Post categorically denied his allegations.

After the 11-day inquiry was concluded, Chung expressed regret and considered himself one of the losers in the saga.

"Many people were hurt because of the way the saga was handled," he said. If he could go back to the past and start again, he would not have mentioned the "special channel" in the first place, he said.

Born to a middle-class family, the son of a Chinese businessman who had spent time living in the United States, the single child never had to worry about money. But he did not show much interest in being rich either.

"I do not like money that much," he once said. "I want to be part of a group of people who do not struggle for a material life and do pursue personal interests and ideals," he later clarified.

The slim and mild-mannered academic has been an active sports player ever since his secondary education at the famous Diocesan Boys' School.

Unlike his fellow graduates from the elite school who graduated straight into successful careers, Chung took a more circuitous path. He was first admitted to the university's faculty of law in 1977, a widely sought-after course which attracted the cream of local students at the time. But he did not enjoy the course, discovering that studying law was more about case studies than social justice.

He quit a year later and joined the Baptist College - now Baptist University - to study sociology, before rejoining the HKU campus in Pok Fu Lam in 1979 to study the same subject.

Chung joined the Social Science Research Centre in 1987 as an assistant research officer.

He has been the public opinion programme director since it was founded in 1991.

From 1993 to 1994, Chung served as a part-time community panellist of the Central Policy Unit, a key government think tank, and later became a part-time member of the unit between 1994 and 1999.

In 1996, he married Damaris Hung, a psychologist he had courted for more than 11 years. They have a daughter, Sheleoni, who is 16.

A long-time friend and former Post reporter, Sharon Cheung, described him as "one of the most respectable men in town". Despite being heavily criticised by the pro-Beijing camp, "he still insists on working independently and believes that data doesn't lie".

"Not many people can work under such pressure without fear," Cheung said.


Robert Chung

Age 56

Marital status Married, one daughter

1982: Bachelor of Social Science, University of Hong Kong
1987: Master of Philosophy (Sociology), University of Hong Kong
1999: Doctor of Philosophy, University of Hong Kong

1987: assistant research officer with the Social Sciences Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong
1991 - present : director, public opinion programme, University of Hong Kong

Public service
1993-94: part-time community panellist on the Central Policy Unit, an official think tank providing advice to the Hong Kong government
1994-99: part-time member of the Central Policy Unit
2006-07: elected secretary-treasurer of the World Association for Public Opinion Research




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