Posted:  Feb. 6, 2012


In the lull between elections, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing opinion-page writers gave their favorite Civic Party target a rest and launched a new campaign focusing on two academics.   Robert Chung Ting-yiu (Zhong Tingyao 鍾庭耀) has headed the University of Hong Kong’s well-regarded Public Opinion Program (POP) since its inception in the early 1990s.   Dixon Ming Sing (Cheng Ming 成名) is an Oxford-educated political scientist and associate professor at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology.  Together they stand accused of violating loyalist norms of political discourse, although not on identical grounds.  The new polemic aims to make an example of them and discredit their work in the eyes of all who might be influenced by it.

Defending the campaign that has so far netted 40+ articles critical of Chung and a dozen ridiculing Sing, Vice-chairman Lau Kong-wah (Liu Jianghua 劉江華) of the main pro-Beijing party said, in effect, so what?  Asked to comment, Lau declared that Hong Kong has freedom of speech and freedom of the press and different opinions are expressed all the time.  Academics and politicians should take it in stride, just as he has learned to do when the newspapers criticize pro-establishment figures like him (Ming Pao Daily, Jan. 12).

For sure, pro-democracy partisans as a whole give as good as they get.  But academics never indulge in the sort of public vituperation that graces pro-Beijing editorial pages when a campaign moves into high gear.   And everyone also knows the participants are engaged in a kind of a-symmetrical political struggle.   Power is concentrated in Beijing hands and Hong Kong’s one-country, two-systems guarantees are in transition to 2047.  Its formally autonomous political system is designed to favor and is dominated by pro-Beijing forces and their allies.  The system is also in constant motion and pro-Beijing pressures to conform are at work on many fronts including those where Robert Chung and Dixon Sing now find themselves under fire. Their experience illustrates one of the more public kinds of “inconvenience” that academics with partisan pro-democracy inclinations can encounter when they stray too far beyond the bounds of political propriety.


         From the pro-Beijing camp’s perspective, both men made mistakes.  Actually, they have made many.  But there were some immediate provocations and both derive from the thorny issue of elections.   Both are also magnified by Beijing’s insistence on distinguishing between popular sovereignty as exercised, for example, in a popularly-initiated referendum and regular elections authorized by the state.  The former is regarded as subversive of state power, the latter upholds it.

Prof. Sing’s troubles began with comments he made to the media about possible reasons for pan-democrats’ disastrous performance in last November’s District Councils election.  Sing’s specialty is Hong Kong politics and since he teaches the subject, journalists often go to him for comments and explanations.  The first part of his mistake was to answer questions put to him by reporters from the Falun Gong news media; the second part was what he said.   He also said the same thing on a radio talk show broadcast by government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK).

Falun Gong is the spiritual sect that is banned in China as an “evil cult” but allowed to carry on here more-or-less unhindered.   Prof. Sing was accused for focusing in his comments on the “vote planting” problem and on possible involvement by the central government’s local Liaison Office personnel in pre-election planning.  Vote planting refers to people who register using false home addresses and vote in constituencies that are not those in which they actually reside.  Pan-democrats blame their pro-establishment opponents for this practice.  But the culprits may actually have made a difference in only a handful of Hong Kong’s 400 District Councils constituencies last November, according to petitions for re-elections by defeated candidates.  Investigations are still underway.  Liaison Office involvement is an open secret reflected in anecdotal evidence and news reports dating back to the mid-1990s when the New China News Agency was still representing mainland interests here.

Robert Chung’s transgressions are also two-fold but more serious.  He announced, in late December, that he was planning a kind of territory-wide referendum-style opinion poll to be held on  March 23rd just ahead of the March 25th Chief Executive selection proceedings.  He wanted to follow up on pan-democrats’ street-corner on-line primary election and the small poll he had conducted for them by telephone as part of their exercise (Jan. 16 post).  The March survey would be far more ambitious, modeled on internet voting, and capable of including up to 100,000 people who would be given the opportunity to indicate their preference among all the formal candidates (South China Morning Post, Dec. 27).  These are now expected to be Henry Tang, CY Leung, and the Democratic Party’s Albert Ho.  Chung’s idea followed also from Beijing’s new popular acceptability criterion (Jan. 4 post) but would in effect be a simulated vote and the next best thing to a real referendum.

Robert Chung’s second problem followed two days later when he announced the latest findings in a series that his POP program has been conducting periodically since 1997.  The aim is to measure Hong Kongers’ sense of belonging as they make the transition from British colonial subjects to Chinese citizens.  The latest survey, 47th in the series, was conducted in mid-December.  Among other things it asked 1,000 Hong Kong residents to rank the strength of their feelings on a scale of one to ten, and found record highs for “Hong Kong citizen” compared to record lows for “Chinese citizen.”  The difference, however, was only 8.23 for the former and 7.01 for the latter.*


To an outside observer, these “provocations” hardly seem worthy of the name.  But in loyalist eyes, the two men already had cases to answer.  Robert Chung’s surveys and pro-democracy editorial explanations were targeted even before 1997.  “We don’t trust his polls,” said loyalists then, and they liked him even less after the first post-1997 administration, led by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, tried to pressure the university into removing him.  Learning of these designs, Chung publicized them, a formal inquiry in 2000 upheld his claims, and the head of the university had to resign as a result.  Robert Chung survived but has since kept his pro-democracy sentiments mostly to himself … until now.

Prof. Sing’s problem is probably not so much what he said to whom about the District Councils election results as what he did in 2010 and the views he has continued to express since, albeit in the low-key style typical of local academics.  But he was among those who helped out with electioneering work, talking to student groups and at academic forums, in support of the 2010 referendum campaign.  This was when two Civic Party legislators joined three from the League of Social Democrats in resigning their seats. They wanted to precipitate simultaneous territory-wide by-elections in protest over the government’s lackluster political reform program.

The exercise was billed by its promoters and treated by Beijing as a de-facto referendum thereby challenging the essence of communist party rule with the threat of popular sovereignty.  Officials warned that the referendum would be a “blatant challenge” to Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution and to the central government’s authority.  After Beijing announced this verdict in mid-January 2010, all the pro-establishment parties abandoned their plans to participate, even though they might well have picked up an extra seat or two in the Legislative Council (2010:  May 17 and June 7 posts).

Among the prominent academics concerned with local politics, aside from those who were Civic Party members, most others joined the Universal Suffrage Alliance seeking some moderate compromise solution and they did not support the referendum protest.  The Civic Party has been the favored target of pro-Beijing political writers ever since and individual members are singled out from time to time.   Not being a party member and having committed no other serious errors, Prof. Sing escaped attention … until last November.


        Beijing likes to present itself today as a modernizing global power proud of its new economic strength and benign intentions.  But the old revolutionary traditions live on and can be seen reflected in political security laws as well as related political discourse.  Lucky for Dr. Chung and Prof. Sing they are not mainland academics because from the sound of it they would surely be prime targets for the ever-present charge of subverting state power.

A Professor in the Dock

The polemic against Prof. Sing was conducted almost entirely in Chinese, mostly by anonymous op-ed page writers in the leading pro-Beijing paper, Wen Wei Po (Wenhui bao 文匯報)。 Lew Mon-hung (Liu Mengxiong, 劉夢熊), an activist member of Hong Kong’s appointed delegation to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) was the only well known contributor.

At first, when it began last November, the criticism passed unnoticed.  Sing’s initial reaction to pan-democrats’ greater than expected losses was that something was not right.  The problem of false voter registrations was widely known and Hong Kong election authorities had taken no action to plug loopholes in the system, including the problem of former Hong Kong residents returning to vote from new cross-border residences.  The question posed was how a political science professor could focus on such reasons without solid proof (WWP, Nov.  28).  Fair enough. The authorities are now taking the matter seriously, arrests have been made, and investigations are underway with conclusions yet to be formally reached about perpetrators, motives, and electoral impact.  But his case soon moved from the bottom to the top of the back page reserved for local politics, and from there to feature length among the op-eds.

Dubbed an “academic long hair” (after veteran radical Leung Kwok-hung who is nicknamed Long Hair), he was accused of singing the same tune as the avidly anti-communist Falun Gong for having given interviews to its reporters.   Whatever he may or may not have actually said to them, however, the eight-point charge sheet of his “most extreme” sayings might also have passed unnoticed since they only reiterated pan-democrats’ standard complaints.

Included among the eight points:  Hong Kong has a semi-autocratic form of government; the kind of elections currently being promoted by the central government (presumably on the mainland) are false elections; the central government is blocking Hong Kong’s democratic development;  Beijing’s Liaison Office here is engaged in behind-the-scenes election planning and mobilization (WWP, Nov. 30).    Additional points of sympathy for Falun Gong and protest over the government’s attempt to abolish special or by-elections as punishment for the 2010 referendum are also part of the standard pan-democratic repertoire.  Everyone has joined in the protest against abolition including those who did not think the referendum itself was a good idea.

It would have seemed like a routine loyalist rebuttal in Hong Kong’s ongoing democracy debate  —  had the stakes not been  raised to make an example of the accused by suggesting what he, and by inference others like him, deserved for persisting in such “extreme” views.  Professors were supposed to be objective and neutral; this one was twisting facts to fit his political bias.  The eight points were prefaced with a question:  “Should the university allow this so-called professor to continue misleading the younger generation?”   CPPCC delegate Lew Mon-hung threw his weight behind the question by repeating it.  He challenged the university to consider carefully whether Sing deserved to remain on the faculty (WWP, Dec. 5, 12).

The paper acknowledged that there had been some negative feedback from students and others (none of which the paper published), only to redouble its efforts.  These culminated in an old-fashioned rabble-rousing headline that proclaimed the professor a “Hateful Western-Trained Dog” (WWP, Dec. 15).  He and his supporters were nevertheless challenged to refute the facts presented and explain his distortions (WWP, Dec. 9, 21).  Supporters have spoken out or published elsewhere.**   But if anyone has challenged the paper to honor its challenge and print their responses it has yet to do so.  Prof. Sing himself has so far not responded nor has the university.***   The RTHK talk-show host who interviewed him had come in for similar criticism and has since been dropped by the broadcaster, which decided not to renew his contract.

The Pollster Pushes Back

Media savvy Robert Chung has fought this battle before and is not so reticent.  The first blasts from adversaries came within days of his two December announcements.  The simulated referendum would, of course, challenge the constitutional order and violate the spirit of the Basic Law (WWP and Ta Kung Pao, Dec. 31).  But what seemed to bother the authorities more was his opinion poll that showed local people still placed so much value on their local identity.  Rather than rely on the usual local surrogates, Liaison Office officials abandoned the pretense of honoring Hong Kong’s one-country, two-systems autonomy and stepped immediately into this one.

Hao Tiechuan (郝鐡川), director of publicity at the Liaison Office, went on local TV to criticize Robert Chung’s poll saying it was “unscientific” and illogical to distinguish between Chinese and Hong Kongers since all were now Chinese citizens (WWP, Dec. 30).  Robert Chung answered back immediately saying it was unscientific of Hao to inject his political imperatives into a survey that attempted to measure changing popular orientations toward the mainland.  He also said Hao’s sarcastic idea about asking locals if they considered themselves British was like “adding legs to the picture of a snake,” since local people had never identified with the British.  The dismissive Chinese phrase was the same that Hao had used to describe Hong Kong democrats’ political reform demands in 2010 (Ming Pao Daily, Standard, Jan. 3).

Critical commentaries mushroomed, partly because public polling and national identity make for easier talking points than professorial lectures on government and politics, but also because Chung continued to defend himself.  Among other things, he accused Hao of trying to interfere with academic freedom and reminded him of Hong Kong’s favorite term for leftist polemics.  “Cultural Revolution-style” criticism and attacks, he said, have no market in a civilized society (Apple Daily, Jan. 3, 11; press release, Jan. 5).

Chung nevertheless turned directly to politics himself since his findings have fluctuated over time evidently reflecting positive and negative political events in Hong Kong and on the mainland.   Hong Kong’s one-county, two-systems experience could serve as a useful example for Taiwan, he said.  The three political entities — Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the mainland  —  all had different political systems, thought, and culture.  But at present almost no one either in Taiwan or Hong Kong was discussing these differences and he hoped to promote such discussion in the future (Ming Pao, Jan. 3).

All the old pent-up grievances against Chung and his work were updated and re-cycled.  Accordingly:  he is in league with the U.S. Consulate, liaises with British intelligence, and has taken money from the National Democratic Institute, which is affiliated with the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy, which as everyone knows is linked with the CIA.  Never mind that NDI had cooperated in many mainland projects.  Beijing was using them to build “socialist democracy” and could guard against infiltration whereas Chung was in a “master-servant relationship” obediently following orders (China Daily, Jan. 6).  And the consequences were clear for all to see.

That identity poll of his was a “political tool” designed to keep alive Hong Kong’s sense of separation from the motherland.  He should not be allowed to persist in asking such questions year after year, confusing the public and passing on suspicions from one generation to the next.  He is actually a promoter of “Hong Kong independence,” in sympathy with the Taiwan independence movement, and nothing more than a political hack who does not qualify to be called an academic much less serve for 20 years as POP director (WWP, Jan. 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 14, 16, etc., etc. … ).

Questions of political security were naturally involved.  The results of his poll “appear to be seditious” because they suggest that Hong Kongers do not support the political order established by the Basic Law. “Such a distorted survey should not enjoy the so-called academic freedom.  Instead, it should be subjected to criticism and some restrictions are necessary for the protection of public morale” (China Daily, Jan. 5).

The Lunar New Year holiday brought a welcome break in this episode but the issues remain unresolved and positions have been reinforced on both sides.  Academics from several universities ended the year with a joint press conference to express their concern.  They urged Chief Executive Donald Tsang, as the formal head of all Hong Kong’s main (publicly-funded) tertiary institutions, to take a clear stand in defense of academic freedom.  Political science professor Kenneth Chan, who is also the Civic Party’s current chairman, said the last thing they needed was to have “Big Brother” looking over their shoulders (SCMP, Jan. 21).  But concern about the “inconvenience” they might encounter if they stray too far beyond the new post-1997 political boundaries has already become a fact of life.

* SCMP, Dec. 29, 30; Ming Pao Daily, Dec. 30; , Press Release, Dec. 28, 2011.

** Ming Pao Daily, Dec. 8; Apple Daily, Dec 8, 16, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 11; SCMP, Jan. 21.

***  Update, Feb. 13:    Prof. Sing’s response is forthcoming.  He and others have formed a University Academics Concerned Group to promote the cause of academic freedom.  Student groups have also begun issuing protest statements (Apple Daily, Feb. 3, 6; Ming Pao Daily, Feb. 6)

Prof. Sing’s response:  Ming Pao Daily News, March 2, 2012.

A signature campaign in defence of academic freedom, signed by 600+ Hong Kong academics, was published in Ming Pao Daily, Mar. 7 (English translation:

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