Saturday, 21 September 2013

First get the questions right - Political Communication in Hong Kong, 2004

Unpacking boxes in my new Aberystwyth home, sorting through files and albums, I have discovered some articles and stories - some published, some not. This article was published in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's English-language newspaper, when I was a Visiting Professor in the Department of Government and Public Administration, Chinese University of Hong Kong (January-June 2004). It refers to a survey published in that newspaper (but also in Chinese-language publications) asking for citizens' views on constitutional development. At the time, I was writing my book., Political Communication and Democracy, and thought this survey a perfect example of poor political communication. 

The original article was published 25 February 2004.  


On Monday, this newspaper - along with every other in Hong Kong - devoted almost a whole page to 'Seeking Your Views', a survey of public opinion launched by the Constitutional Development Taskforce. The survey invited readers to respond to a series of questions relating to passages from the Basic Law that were conveniently printed on the left-hand side of the page for easy reference. Democrats rejoice! The public participation in the political process that you have long demanded is now a reality. You can forget about demonstrating through the streets of Hong Kong and, instead, put pen to paper to express your much sought-after opinions. After all, that is what democracy is all about, isn't it?

Well, no it is not. In fact, the survey does nothing whatsoever to facilitate democratic communication in Hong Kong.

First, it complicates even further the extremely technical debates about Hong Kong's political development that are currently saturating the media. Take a close look at Question A2, on the principles of the 'actual situation' and 'gradual and orderly progress'. Readers are invited to comment on how the 'actual situation' should be constituted, and how we might understand 'gradual and orderly progress'. Another question asks how the development of Hong Kong's political structure could meet the interests of the different sectors of society and facilitate the development of the capitalist economy.

Wow, talk about asking big questions.

Still with me? Good, because when the survey turns to the issues of legislative process, the questions become even more demanding: 'What is the most appropriate legislative procedure for amending the methods for selecting the [chief executive] and forming Legco? Do we need to follow the procedures set out in Article 159 of the Basic Law, if we amend the methods for selecting the [chief executive] or forming Legco as specified in Annexes I and II of the Basic Law?'

And on it goes...

The taskforce has obviously forgotten the first principle: a survey is only as good as the questions it asks, and the questions asked do not invite serious response because they assume a particularly high level of knowledge and comprehension. Has everybody read, understood and, most importantly, interrogated the relevant passages of the Basic Law and all its annexes to be able to offer the kind of critical opinion the taskforce requires? Unfortunately for Hong Kong, political science tells us that, faced with a complicated question, citizens tend to abstain altogether from such surveys because they do not understand the issue, or they vote to keep the status quo (surveys generally being forces of conservative government).

The consequences are potentially ominous: if the average citizen is unable to provide sensible and cogent answers to such surveys based on full information and critical reflection, it is possible to imagine a time when a government concludes that the level of political ignorance is unsatisfactory for any kind of participation. Moreover, if the response rate is low, the authoritarians among us will claim that democracy has failed, and that Hong Kong people are apathetic to politics after all (an argument which the July and January demonstrations prove is nonsense). Or, the technicalities of the questions will generate responses from certain sections of the population only, sustaining an elitist political system that allows for the continued 'tyranny of the minority'. Either way, Hong Kong loses.

The question is only the first stage. The real problems lie in the interpretation of responses. For example, how should the strength of conviction be measured? Should a strong opinion be weighted more heavily than one weakly expressed? Should the taskforce allow for the fact that some respondents will be basing their answer on greater knowledge or information than others? Is the opinion of someone who does not know much about an issue worth the same or less than someone who knows more? Should their opinions be treated equally by decision-makers?

These are important questions, because they lie at the heart of democratic political communication; does or should everyone have an equal opportunity to express their opinions to policymakers, regardless of their access to knowledge and information? This calls for an inquiry into the very value of such surveys, the methods they use, their place in the decision-making process, and the responsiveness of government. They tell us nothing about why respondents hold particular opinions and from where they obtained the information upon which the opinions are based

So if the survey is not assisting democracy, we can argue that it is merely feeding the illusion of participation, transparency and legitimacy. It is providing a fantasy for every Hong Kong resident - Chinese and English-speaking - that his or her views are wanted and valued. The appeal of such surveys is understandable: decisions are considered more legitimate if they have been arrived at by soliciting popular opinion. However, their success depends on voter interest and participation, being user-friendly, and providing information that is of sufficient quality that all potential respondents can form an opinion, regardless of background or status.

Let me summarise my argument in the kind of direct, jargon-free language that the taskforce has decided is not appropriate for its survey: this is bad communication. Political communication turns on the need to persuade people to care enough about an issue that they will form an opinion about it. This survey does neither, and on such an important issue for Hong Kong, that is very worrying indeed.