Answer to $30 million question|Andy Ho

Published (HKT): 2021.01.15 09:30

In 1930, Chairman Mao cautioned his comrades, “He who makes no investigation and study has no right to speak.” The supreme communist leader demanded that policies be premised on field research. Ninety years later, the Policy Innovation and Co-ordination Office (PICO) is now tasked with overseeing timely studies are conducted to keep the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government down to earth.

PICO was created in 2017 out of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s inaugural Policy Address. It is meant to be an upgrade of the Central Policy Unit which had been around since the colonial days. In the aftermath of the anti-extradition bill campaign, the Office dished out almost $30 million to fund 78 research projects in a special round under its Public Policy Research Funding Scheme. Officials even took the trouble of calling up prospective applicants to submit their proposals days before the deadline.

Most of the successful applicants are academics. A few pro-establishment think tanks also grabbed a piece of the pie. The One Country, Two Systems Research Institute, co-founded by former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, was given $499,550 to study “The Sense of Identity and Political Trust of Hong Kong People under the ‘Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement’.” Executive Councillor Ronny Tong Ka-wah’s Path of Democracy got $415,127 for “Our Future beyond 2047: Perspectives from the Hong Kong Public.”

Others’ topics range from the underlying causes of the unrests to social reconciliation strategies. The research units were all given six months to complete their works. They have started handing in their reports to PICO.

For instance, professors from several institutions have closed ranks to look into social mobility, mental health and political trust among the youth in Hong Kong. They have found that 87 percent of the 250 high school students sampled do not trust the government. A team member, Head of the Hong Kong University’s Department of Social Work and Social Administration Terry Lum Yat-sang, likened the society to a political powder keg. Explaining their findings on radio, he said the authorities had never sought to defuse the bomb. Professor Lum warned the government that if it failed to act now, a sparkle in the future could end up in a huge explosion.

A team led by Professor Paul Lee Siu-nam of the Communication School of the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong has harped on the same theme. Among the 1,935 respondents to their questionnaire, 46% considered the Chief Executive’s earlier dialogue sessions with the public had absolutely zero effect in addressing social discontent. On a scale of 10, her engagement attempts were rated with an average of a meagre 2.5. In an op-ed piece published on Wednesday, the team noted: “The government has been bureaucratic, old-fashioned, insensitive and slow in communicating its polices through both the mainstream and online media.”

The PICO-funded reports are expected to be uploaded to its website soon for public consumption. It is also expected to host seminars for interested parties to discuss the results.

Both the Central and local governments have apparently been dealing with the social unrests in the city without the benefits of scientific research into the socio-psychological factors at play. Shelving the controversial bill aside, the authorities have practically made no other concession to any of the popular demands affirmed in the mass protests over the past one and a half years. Instead, officials are intent on suppressing dissenting voices and rooting out organized opposition.

Since last summer, a national security law has been imposed, over 11,000 activists arrested, mass rallies banned and general elections for the legislature cancelled. After pro-democracy legislators were cleansed from the assembly, activists who won their District Council seats in a landslide victory in 2019 are next on the official hit list. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress is reportedly poised to amend the voting mechanisms once and for all so that there will no longer be a meaningful opposition within the SAR system.

Reconciliation is simply not a word in the authorities’ playbook. Armed with concrete findings from the field, the researchers are in the best position to inform officials that their high-handedness will only backfire. It will breed distrust especially among the younger generation, while one in seven families are reportedly making plans to quit Hong Kong.

PICO is now supposed to digest and integrate the various findings and recommendations into an actionable strategic plan. Whether the political masters upstairs will pick up any insight from it, however, is a $30 million question.

(Andy Ho is a public affairs consultant. A former political editor of the South China Morning Post, he served as Information Coordinator at the Chief Executive’s Office of the HKSAR Government from 2006 to 2012.)

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