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Hong Kong Pollster Plans to Limit Questions on Sensitive Topics

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Hong Kong Pollster Plans to Limit Questions on Sensitive Topics

Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute will cancel about one-fourth of its regular survey questions, which have been a valuable gauge of public sentiment in the city.

Hong Kong Pollster Plans to Limit Questions on Sensitive Topics
Credit: Depositphotos

One of Hong Kong’s most reputable sources for public opinion data is limiting its survey scope, including on sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen crackdown, Taiwan’s independence, and local identity. The change, on the heels of a risk assessment done by the government, would likely muffle access to information showing changes in public sentiment toward the city.

Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) announced Tuesday it had “tentatively decided to cancel about one-fourth” of its regular survey questions. Of the remaining questions, the institute will use about one-third only for “internal reference, academic research, and commissioned services,” rather than releasing them for public use.

“These topics tentatively cover our handover series, ethnic identity, cross-strait issues, global awareness, June Fourth Incident, [Legislative] Councillor ratings, disciplinary forces and some social indicators,” the institute’s press release said. (The June Fourth Incident is another name for the Tiananmen crackdown, which began on June 4, 1989.)

The announcement came two weeks after the release of HKPORI’s report about the anniversary of China’s crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy protests was canceled due to the Hong Kong government’s risk assessment.

The institute’s CEO, Robert Chung, told the Associated Press in an email reply Tuesday night that the government’s risk evaluation weighed into the decision.

When HKPORI was reviewing its operation, it also considered various factors including the demand for opinion data, the historical development of Hong Kong society, the role of the pollster in promoting science and democracy, and legal risks, he said. Their final plan will be announced in July.

Critics said the moves would be a great loss to Hong Kong, which was once famed for its freedom of expression.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to China’s rule in 1997 and was promised the right to retain its Western-style civil liberties for 50 years after the handover. For decades, the institute has tracked public sentiment on issues including the 1989 crackdown that killed hundreds and possibly thousands of people and how China’s central government policy has fared the city.

In particular, HKPORI’s polling on the question of identity has long been a valuable barometer of public attitudes in Hong Kong. Since the 1997 handover, the institute has asked Hong Kong residents whether they would identify as a Hong Konger, Chinese, “Chinese in Hong Kong,” or “Hong Konger in China.” The long-term, regular polling allowed researchers to track developments over time, particularly during turbulent episodes like the 2019 protests and implementation of the 2020 national security law. Such questions on “ethnic identity” are among the ones to be scrapped under the current plan.

In other regular surveys, HKPORI has asked respondents whether they approve or disapprove of Hong Kong’s police, chief executive, and members of the Legislative Council, as well as gauging public sentiment toward cross-strait “reunification” and Taiwanese politicians. All those questions are set to be axed as well.

The institute earlier said it was not told whether the government’s risk assessment was related to the sweeping national security law, nor did it ask. Neither the government nor the police immediately responded to a request for comment.

In January 2021, when more than 50 pro-democracy activists were arrested on subversion charges in the city’s biggest national security crackdown yet, police also raided the office of the institute. HKPORI helped organize voting during the pro-democrats’ unofficial primary elections, which sparked the subversion charges.

Before he launched the independent institute, Chung was the director of the public opinion program at the University of Hong Kong, the city’s oldest university. Over the years, his work has drawn ire from pro-Beijing media outlets and organizations. But the institute continued to ask politically sensitive questions after the enactment of the security law.

For example, in previous polls about the Tiananmen crackdown, it asked respondents whether they thought Beijing students and the central government “did the right thing.” And as recently as April 2023, HKPORI was still running a biannual survey asking respondents if they “agree to Taiwan becoming independent.”

Chung Kim-wah, who served as deputy chief executive of the institute before leaving for the United Kingdom, said his former colleagues have been doing public opinion studies for about 30 years – a rarity in the city, and crucial to the study of Hong Kong’s history and social development.

The poll results were also used to provide information to the government so it could respond to the public’s views, and served as indicators of the city’s changes, Chung said.

“This is a very great loss,” he said.