When a sociological survey about Hong Kong angers Chinese authorities

Politics can interfere with research studies and findings. For an example, here is a case of a sociological survey done in Hong Kong that has gotten the attention of Chinese authorities:

In December, a Hong Kong sociologist by the name of Robert Chung found himself at the center of a political storm. A study commissioned by Chung, director of opinion research at a leading university in the territory, discovered that the number of people who identify themselves primarily as citizens of Hong Kong was higher than it’s been for the past 10 years. The survey showed that the number of those who viewed themselves as Chinese had fallen to 16.6 percent. That’s a 12-year low and less than half of what it was three years ago.

Since then the territory’s communist press has launched a vicious attack on the pollster. “Political fraudster” and “a slave of dirty political money” are just two of the Cultural Revolution style epithets trotted out against Professor Chung. Hao Tiechuan, a Beijing official stationed in Hong Kong, called in local reporters to denounce Professor Chung’s work as “unscientific” and “illogical.”

Beijing, always wary of Hong Kong’s loyalty because of its colonial heritage, ratchets up the rhetoric even higher during “election” season. In March, 1200 mostly pro-Beijing loyalists will choose the next chief executive, and in September, Hong Kong citizens will go to the polls to choose 35 of 70 seats in the partially-democratic legislature. Last fall, pro-Beijing candidates won local district-level polls overwhelmingly, although an investigation has been opened into possible vote-rigging. Beijing’s attacks on Professor Chung– as well as on a so-called “Gang of Four” of prominent democracy advocates — may be calculated to keep the minions who choose the chief executive in line and dampen turnout by the solid majority of Hong Kong voters who favor progress toward full democracy.

Does this make complaints about academic freedom in the United States seem rather tame?

The attacks by the communist press are intriguing. First, “political fraudster” implies that the work is unscientific. Second, the charge of being  “a slave of dirty political money” suggests that the work is politically motivated and skewed. In both critiques, the attack is against the scientific credibility of the sociologist. The argument is that Chung has done poor research and the results shouldn’t be trusted. Furthermore, it suggests that Chung himself is not capable of good conducting good research.

These are serious charges for a sociologist. It is one thing to disagree with findings or about their interpretation or suggest that they should have used another method. It is another thing to claim that the researcher intentionally found certain results or can’t do good research. Yes, methodological errors are made occasionally (and sometimes fraudulently) but this cuts to the heart of sociology and the claim that we are searching for replicable and valid results. I hope Chang is able to show his proper use of sociological methods and is supported by others.

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