What kind of HK do the public want?

Updated: 2014-03-14 06:22

By Ken Davies (HK Edition)

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While the debate rages among politicians and in the media over what form of universal suffrage will take in the 2017 Chief Executive Election, the people of Hong Kong are pondering what attitude to take. What do they really think? How much faith do they have in the government's approach? Do they support or oppose the proposed Occupy Central demonstrations? Deep down, what kind of Hong Kong do they want?

In March, the Hong Kong Transition Project will answer these questions in a report surveying Hong Kong people's views on the fairness of the current consultation on constitutional reform and on Occupy Central. A preview of the report has just been released.

The results of the telephone poll, which was carried out in December 2013, give no grounds for complacency on the part of the government. Rather more people think Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam will conduct the consultation process fairly (32 percent) than think she will do so unfairly (21 percent). That, though, leaves nearly half (47 percent) in the Don't Know camp. Lam clearly has her work cut out convincing those who remain unsure.

Similarly, while a narrow majority (52 percent) opposes the Occupy Central protest planned for this July, as against a minority (38 percent) who support it, the strongest support is among the young, who are the voters of the future, and professional and high-income groups in the community.

At the same time, a clear majority (57 percent) is worried about violence and damage to Hong Kong's economy from an Occupy Central demonstration, as opposed to rather fewer (41 percent) who are not worried; the proportion of Don't Knows on this question (2 percent) is negligible.

I would have expected that those people who are satisfied with the constitutional consultation process and oppose Occupy Central would be the ones to express most concern about violence and economic damage. Wrong. It is the young who are more likely to support Occupy Central, and young people are more likely to fear it will be damaging.

This suggests there is greater determination among young people - especially students - to go ahead with the demonstration even though they expect it will cause harm to Hong Kong. This may well be because younger people have less confidence in the fairness of the public consultation. Those who thought it would be unfair outnumber those who thought it would be fair in all the age groups under 40. The reverse was true for all age groups over 40.

What kind of HK do the public want?

It looks like there is not much the Hong Kong government can do to discourage the Occupy Central demonstration. The opinion poll shows the public's view of it will not be much affected by early and effective completion of the consultation, leading, for example, to the publication of a report or even a draft law (white paper) by July 1.

The greatest impact on support for Occupy Central would appear to be from the attitudes of the opposition parties. If they all join together to call on the public to support the protest, 36 percent of respondents say they would support Occupy Central. That support drops to 29 percent if only the radical opposition parties do so.

When the full report is published in March, the media focus will be on the attitudes displayed in it towards the rapidly approaching Occupy Central demonstration. Perhaps more important is its longer-term significance: the gap in perceptions and aspirations between young and old in Hong Kong. Younger people are less likely to have been born on the mainland and more likely to value Hong Kong's international and pluralist identity. They appear to be harder to convince about the government's sincerity in the consultation process.

It is important for any government to carry the opinion of all segments of the population with it in carrying out major constitutional changes. Young people have a special importance as their opinions are likely to affect future elections.

The author was chief economist, Asia, and bureau chief with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in Hong Kong until 2001, then head of global relations in the OECD's Investment Division until 2010.

(HK Edition 03/14/2014 page9)