The head of the government's in-house think tank has waded into a row over opinion polling by describing some polls conducted by the University of Hong Kong as "problematic".
Shiu Sin-por, head of the Central Policy Unit, cited certain techniques used by HKU's public opinion programme, headed by Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu, which he said could lead to a distorted view of public opinion.
"Chung loves to ask respondents to assign marks [to government officials] … but by taking averages, the findings would easily be affected by the extremes," Shiu said in Beijing, where he is a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. "I think it is problematic but I am not saying it is wrong.
"Foreign polls do not ask people to give a score on [US President Barack] Obama."
HKU's polling has been under the spotlight since CPPCC Standing Committee member and businessman Peter Lee Ka-kit accused HKU of "publishing poll results that are unfavourable to the central and local governments at critical moments".
He suggested "patriots" set up their own polling organisation.
While Shiu refused to say if polls had become a political tool, he said: "If one masters certain statistical skills, one can manipulate public opinion."
Wording could also affect the findings of a poll. "There is a huge difference between asking 'do you support' and 'do you approve'," Shiu said.
HKU's polls on government performance ask respondents to rate the extent to which they support Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying on a scale of 0 to 100 and whether they approve or disapprove of his performance.
One of the Central Policy Unit's key functions is monitoring public opinion, and Shiu said its latest venture would be to go online to gather views.
The project includes monitoring major internet discussion boards. Websites such as the infamous Golden Forum - which has more than 600,000 registered users - have become increasingly popular spots for Hongkongers to discuss issues of the day.
"We want to observe the trend of internet opinions and study the nature of internet activities. People can speak on unanimous grounds and some of them are paid. What does it reflect?" Shiu said. "We are six months into the study but have not yet reached a concluding view."
The study would not include social media. After it was completed in the next few months, the unit would look at how the government used the internet.
Meanwhile, former Institute of Education chief Professor Paul Morris hit out at Lee's proposal for the business sector to form its own polling organisation as an alternative to HKU's research.
"To set one up to explicitly provide results which favour either the pro- or anti-establishment camp is very suspect," he said.
Morris, who left HKIEd in 2007 amid accusations a government official tried to get him to fire academics critical of the administration, warned that universities risked damaging their reputation if they engaged in biased or politically driven polls.
"That members of [the CPPCC] make such proposals reflects a worrying level of authoritarianism," said Morris, now working in London, of Lee's idea of a new polling body.
Meanwhile, Dr Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago, said Chung's work was well respected by the international polling community. "His surveys have a strong track record of reliability and validity," Smith said.