International polling company YouGov has asked a Hong Kong academic to drop questions about the city’s sweeping national security law from a survey he commissioned, raising questions about the room left for pollsters to measure public opinion freely in the city.
Stephan Shakespeare, the chief executive and co-founder of the London-headquartered company, said on Thursday that his group had to operate within local legal frameworks.
“YouGov wants to know what the world thinks. We are dedicated to pursuing this goal within the laws and regulations of the markets in which we operate,” he told the Post in a brief statement.
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He made the comment after Dr Kobayashi Tetsuro, from the City University of Hong Kong’s department of media and communication, took to Twitter earlier this week to say that the company had requested he drop from an online survey some questions that might violate the controversial law.
The scholar said YouGov made the decision after receiving legal advice from Hong Kong lawyers, as well as the company’s legal teams in Singapore and its UK headquarters.
Tetsuro did not respond to requests for comment, but he had previously told the Hong Kong Citizen News outlet that he was asked to delete six questions in total, and subsequently agreed.
Only two of the questions were about the new law. One asked respondents to rate on a scale of one to nine – with one being strongly agree and nine being strongly disagree – whether they agreed with the statement that the law was unnecessary because it hurt the city’s freedom.
The other question asked whether respondents agreed that the law was necessary because it ensured safety for the city.
Of the four other questions, two were about the Hong Kong government’s fight against the coronavirus outbreak, and two were about whether the city’s police had threatened human rights.
The list of questions was first submitted to YouGov in June.
Francis Lee Lap-fung, director of the Chinese University’s School of Journalism and Communication, who has conducted many polls in the past, said the problem was that the national security law was so broadly termed that no one can say for sure whether it would be a violation to conduct polls on what the public thought about it.
“There are no ways to assess and say that there are absolutely no risks,” he said.
In principle, he said, asking the public for their views on the topic should not be a violation because the pollsters were not guiding the citizens to show disapproval of the law.
He said the six questions proposed by Tetsuro were “very normal,” but apparently YouGov decided not to take any chances.
The national security law punishes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Since it came into effect on June 30, only the Hong Kong Research Association, a pro-Beijing group, has conducted surveys on the law. Its July survey of about 1,100 people showed that 66 per cent were supportive or very supportive of the legislation.
Some other pollsters had done surveys on the law before it was enacted, but not after.
Chung Kim-wah, deputy chief executive of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, said his institute would not shy away from any topics. But he acknowledged that the law was “broadly and vaguely” termed, and thus some pollsters might fear they could be in violation of it.
“It’s unavoidable that some people will be afraid,” he said. “But we won’t censor ourselves.”
A university academic who has conducted many surveys in the past also spoke of concerns about doing polls about the law.
“You don’t even know how to ask the questions. The interviewees may not want to share their thoughts,” said the academic, who asked not to be named.
He added that even if polls were to be conducted, there were worries that the results would not be to the liking of pro-Beijing groups, who might single the pollsters out online.
There were also fears that the data of interviewees could be stolen by hackers, he noted.
“There are no cybersecurity means that are absolutely safe,” he said.
Additional reporting by Chan Ho-him
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This article International polling company pulls questions from Hong Kong survey over national security law fears first appeared on South China Morning Post