Hong Kong By The Numbers

This is a preview of some numbers that will be coming up.  The date is July 1st, where big marches have occurred for the past two years.  In 2003, there was only one single number presented: 500,000 marchers.  In 2004, there was a surfeit of numbers and that became a point of contention that overshadowed the march itself.  The details of that dispute are captured in this extended post The Hong Kong 7/1 March: Crowd Size Estimates.

In brief, in 2004, the Civil Human Rights Front came up with an estimate of 530,000.  Unfortunately for them, they also disclosed their methodology, which contained an elementary school arithmetic error.  But the Civil Human Rights Front declined to withdraw that number, and said that they would leave it up to history to decide what the truth is.  Meanwhile, six other organizations came up with their own estimates, and they were all clustered around 200,000 or below.  So this left the Civil Human Rights Front of having to impugn all six organizations (which included professional statisticians from the universities) as being malicious and/or incompetent.

The worst part in the Hong Kong folklore was that the 2004 figure was 530,000 compared to the 2003 figure of 500,000 for an increase of 30,000 (which in Chinese is read as 'three wen' or three times ten thousand.).  What is 'three' so bad?  There is an old Cantonese saying about the act of inflating numbers.  The phrase is "dead person's lantern."  What did that come from?  Once upon a time, when a person passed away, this family would raise blue-and-white paper lanterns outside the front door upon which the age of the person is written.  By tradition, one always takes the real age of the person (e.g. 50) and add three more years (e.g. 50 + 3= 53) to represent Heaven, Earth and Man.  Thus, that 530,000 figure for the 2004 march was referred to as being "dead person's lantern (死人燈籠)."

This year, it is reported in Sing Tao that the Civil Human Rights Front intends to seek the help of the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Programme.  Here, "help" seems to mean that they want the HKU POP staff to instruct the Civil Human Rights Front workers on how to do the count properly (see the HKU POP methodology at the bottom of this post New Year's Day Numbers For Hong Kong).  The implication is that the Civil Human Rights Front accepts that the Hong Kong University methodology as being correct, and that type of methodology was producing numbers that were less than 200,000 last year, compared to the 530,000 that they have insisted upon all this time.  At the very least, this is a concession even if they will never admit to it.

The HKU POP has already announced that they will be counting the number of people in this year's march as well.  So why would the Civil Human Rights Front still want to do it themselves?  There are only three outcomes.  First, they get about the same number, so the exercise was a waste of time and resources, but that is okay.  Second, the Civil Human Rights Front gets a much higher number, and then there will be a painful choice between incompetence and dishonesty.  Third, they may get a much lower number, which at least leaves only incompetence as the explanation.  There will also be other organizations doing counts as well.

My advice to the Civil Human Rights Front -- Get out of the counting business altogether.  There was enough damage done last year already.  This is a major distraction from the cause.  If you can't even manage a task like this competently and honestly, why should you be trusted with any responsibility through direct elections?

By the way, the Civil Human Rights Front stated on the police application that they expect 50,000 people this year.

There will be a second number coming out of the July 1st event.  The Civil Human Rights Front has printed 18,000 pairs of ballots in a simulated referendum.  One ballot will show preference for direct election of the Chief Executive in 2007, and the other ballot will show preference for direct election of the entire Legislative Council in 2008.  At present, the Chinese National People's Congress Standing Committee has declared that direct elections will not take place in 2007/2008.

Even though 50,000 are expected, only 18,000 ballots will be handed on a first-come, first-serve basis to those who show up early before the march begins.  

What percent of the ballots will be for direct elections?  Anything less than 100% will be a disappointment.  Why?  The slogans of this year's march is: "Oppose collusion between government and business people; strive for direct elections."  Why is anyone present if they don't want direct elections?  However, it is also possible that the percentage of people who want a directly elected Chief Executive may be less than that for a directly elected Legislative Council, in consideration of the absence of any viable alternatives in the ongoing Chief Executive election.

The most important thing about the mini-referendum is that the results come from a small, self-selected sample.  This is a small sample because it is only 18,000 out of 3.2 million registered voters.  This sample is self-selected (that is, they are by definition interested in direct elections) and therefore not representative of all voters.  So one cannot derive any significance out of the 100% preference for direct election; of course, someone will try but that will only be drowned in a chorus of boos and completely detract from the event.

So why is this simulated referendum even being held?  The explanation is that it will show people how a referendum can be done easily, and perhaps this will generate the impetus towards holding a real referendum.  But the doubts about holding a full referendum has nothing to do with the feasibility of implementation.  If the government knows how to run elections, it knows how to run referenda.  The major skepticism is that it will be non-binding, because the concept of a referendum does not exist in the Basic Law of Hong Kong.  Yes, it is possible to hold a referendum, but the results are meaningless.  In the same way, there can be no referendum to impeach the President of the United States, because there is no such provision within their constitution.  So this is a colossal waste of public funds to enable a few politicians to get media exposure.

Let us say that the goal is to get the direct elections in 2007/2008.  This is listed in the policy platform of the Democratic Party chairman Lee Wing-tat in his current campaign for the Chief Executive position.  His opponent Donald Tsang did not have this down as a goal.  When Donald Tsang was asked if he was against it, he said his opponent was just a dreamer without a roadmap on how to accomplish it.  Why promise something that can't be delivered?  But what is inside the democrats' toolkit for achieving this goal?

No other tricks are left in the democrats' toolkit (forgetting about bringing a black coffin to the next government function and having a jostling match with the police as usual).