Oathgate Polling and Disentangling the Arguments

Opinions on Oathgate are a multi-faceted thing. What I aim to do in this post is bring data from a recent poll I conducted into the conversation. Data is something sadly lacking right now, in part because polling data like this can be expensive to create and not always made public. We don’t actually know very well how each-other think about these complex issues. Chris Patten’s visit and comments have sparked a new round of debate. Some argue that Patten spoke for “ordinary Hong Kongers,” but that’s a loaded term and the data I collected doesn’t exactly bear that out. Hong Kong is a highly polarized society, and the “ordinary” college student has very different opinions than the “ordinary” middle-aged ‘uncle.’ Without good data, it is easy to use and believe simple political narratives (a recent example is the alluring, but flawed, narrative that the average Trump voter belongs to the under-educated and relatively poor ‘white working class‘).

Disentangling Oathgate Arguments

Other arguments have tried to bring into question Chris Patten’s historical record as arguments against them, which I will address in a separate post. We need to be bringing more data to our arguments – be it public opinion surveys or the historical record. As I often tell my students, my measure of a good class is when they walk out more confused, not less. The more nuance we bring to these incredibly complex issues, the better. If nothing else, I hope pro-Localist readers will walk away understanding that those who disagree with them on Oathgate hold multiple ideas, of which there are areas of substantial agreement. There are no monolithic pro/anti camps in Hong Kong.

This becomes evident as we disentangle the multiple issues that are getting jammed into the #Oathgate hashtag. First is the issue of whether or not the Youngspiration ‘Duo’ should be allowed to be sworn in after their stunts. The second issue concerns how both the Hong Kong and Beijing government(s?) have responded to the crisis and the legal mechanics they’ve used to try to prevent them from retaking their oaths. Finally, there is the complex issue concerning the aims of the government’s legal challenge is. Is it, as many fear, merely a pretext to bring ideological purity tests to LegCo – and perhaps all civil servants, including teachers? CY Leung’s move to disqualify Lau Siu-Lai is simultaneously ominous and a different issue than his injunction to stop Youngspiration.

Before getting to the data, it is worth reiterating my caveats about how we should read and use public opinion polling. At one end, there is no threshold at which an opinion becomes popular enough that it overrides the rule of law. Going back to the Philippine example used in my explainer, the Hong Kong equivalent of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines is disqualification from office based on political beliefs, which is a clear violation of the Basic Law. Arguably, so too is support for how Beijing went about ‘interpreting‘ the Basic Law – which created a dark precedent for ‘interpreting’ entire laws into existence. Like Article 23.

On the other end, lawmakers are representatives instead of delegates. Nobody is technically bound to follow the ‘democratic will’ of society. In functioning democracies, which Hong Kong is clearly not, disregarding public will usually comes with electoral consequences. No such consequences exist in a system where a Chief Executive wins an ‘election’ with 689 votes. And yet opinion polling can offer the public a voice that is otherwise missing from the conversation. My poll lets more than 400 Hong Kongers speak out.

The Data and What It Means

How should we read my polling data that shows that 61% of Hong Kongers opposed allowing the Youngspiration ‘Duo’ to be sworn in, 31% thought they should be allowed to, and 8% were neutral? If it doesn’t feel like that’s an accurate number to you, that’s because the numbers are inverted for younger age groups: amongst 20 to 24-year-olds, 60% support allowing them to retake the oath and 23% oppose it. While you are invited to (vigorously) disagree with me, my reading of this is that the will of the Hong Kong people is firmly against allowing the ‘Duo’ to retake their oaths. This does not mean they agree with the mechanisms used to prevent them taking their oaths, only that most Hong Kongers found the stunt itself so disqualifying that the candidates were unworthy of a second chance.

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The data also exposes a hole in the argument for allowing them to retake their oaths: they promised to protect and serve the Hong Kong people in their original oaths, yet most Hong Kongers want them to exit the stage. In arguing that they should be allowed to retake their oaths, one argues that we should ignore the will of Hong Kong citizens. While Richard Scofield argues that the Duo “did exactly what they were elected to do,” we should also bear in mind that Edward Leung now says that he “let his voters down.” Nonetheless, Scofield raises an interesting question that doesn’t have an obvious answer to me: what does ‘democratic will’ mean amidst such extreme political polarization? Assuming that 100% of the 20% of voters that voted Youngspiration into LegCo agree with their actions, is this sufficient to ignore a clear majority that found their antics intolerable?

The silver lining that I see in the data is that there is still broad consensus in Hong Kong about basic democratic norms. Only 35% of respondents believed that the government should be allowed to disqualify LegCo candidates because of their political beliefs. While that is comforting, note that ‘only’ 50% oppose disqualification based on political beliefs. Fully 15% are undecided on the issue. The numbers are also similar when asked about the Beijing interpretation: 42% approved of it (before it happened), 50% were opposed to it. Most people also disapprove of CY Leung’s job performance (54% disapprove, 24% approve) and few are impressed with LegCo President Andrew Leung’s performance (58% disapprove, 25% approve).

I would nuance this to say that the question was ambiguous and I might have answered “yes” to the belief-based disqualification question. My imaginative mind conjures examples of Jihadi ‘true believers’ being elected to office. Would it be wrong to disqualify someone from office for professing a belief that the 95% of the population they represent should submit to Sharia law or be murdered? There is also a debate in the United States about whether or not Donald Trump’s disregard for American law and democratic norms is, in itself, disqualifying (I lean towards ‘yes’). Perhaps survey respondents were not answering the way we might assume.

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How Data Can Empower Activism

If there is a single point I am trying to drive home, it is that data shows us that public opinion is complex and multi-faceted. Our political opponents can disagree with us for reasons different than we expect. It would seem most Hong Kongers are upset about this particular circumstance, but most would also be upset with any larger purge of LegCo. A slim majority are opposed to Beijing’s ‘interpretation’ and purging independence advocates from LegCo.

I believe this was precisely the point that Chris Patton was making: independence advocacy is a distraction from the fight for democratization. Not just universal suffrage in choosing the Chief Executive, but all of the threatened liberal democratic norms that need protecting under One Country, Two Systems. Mounting too vigorous a defense of the Youngspiration ‘Duo’ can alienate the majorities that still expect the Hong Kong and Chinese governments to implement the most pluralistic and democratic norm-based sections of the Basic Law.

Most important, though, is that we should carefully choose the issues to fight over. For the political wars to come, we should be as clear as possible about what and where the battle lines are. Perhaps those who fought the hardest for the Youngspiration ‘Duo’ should stop arguing the specifics of that case because they lost that argument in the court of public opinion. They should instead refocus on the most pressing issue of the day: the growing prospect of a wider purge in LegCo. What screams out to me in the data is that activists should be fighting to persuade the 15% of Hong Kongers undecided about whether or not the government should be allowed to disqualify LegCo candidates because of political beliefs. Those who are undecided are not the young: less than 10% of people under the age of 35 were ‘neutral.’ More than 20% of those aged 35-44 are.

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