SCMP Friday, September 8, 2000

Reluctant hero


"The worst is over," said Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu last Friday night, as the University of Hong Kong inquiry released its report on the polling controversy. The 43-year-old was at a traditional High Table dinner with about 120 new students at the campus's R.C Lee Hall of residence for students, where he has been the warden for more than eight years.
Looking relaxed, he gave a speech to students shortly after the dinner. The man at the centre of the biggest controversy in the university's 89 year history said his worst moments had been in the first few days after his July 7 revelation that an unnamed "third party" had asked him to stop conducting popularity surveys on the Government and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. During that period, Dr Chung remained silent in the face of intense pressure from Executive Councillors and government officials to identify those who had allegedly passed on this message to him.
He was also swamped by more than 120 letters and e-mail messages, some sympathetic, but many critical, including some mainlanders accusing him of being a troublemaker.
One letter - which he read out to the assembled students - helped persuade him to break his silence. It was from a former student in his hall of residence who, while still at school, had been angered by his headmaster's warning not to say anything to the media when a classmate was killed. The student kept quiet, only to regret it later.
"So I better not hide anything," he told the South China Morning Post, explaining why he finally named pro-vice-chancellor Professor Wong Siu-lun and vice-chancellor Professor Cheng Yiu-chung as the intermediaries on July 14.
The decision to speak out followed more than 18 months of wrestling with his emotions after learning of Mr Tung's concerns about his polls.
His main reason for initially keeping quiet was that Professor Wong was also his mentor, the man who had guided him throughout his whole academic career: "I had been thinking of him very hard in that period. I don't know whether he understands I have been thinking so hard about him."
Professor Wong, who supervised both Dr Chung's masters and PhD degrees, is clearly one of the most influential figures in the pollster's life. "He is a very good mentor," he said, who repeatedly encouraged the pollster not to give up during the six years it took to complete his doctorate.
"I felt there was something wrong but I didn't know what to do," he said, recalling his reaction when his mentor first raised the polling issue with him in January 1999. "It seemed like we had contracted some virus from society."
For a long time, Dr Chung tried to avoid the problem, keeping the secret to himself and waiting for an opportunity to resolve it quietly and peacefully. The pollster thought the chance had finally come in early July when the Chief Executive told the media that he paid great attention to such popularity polls.
Dr Chung said he thought that writing an article for the Post would be the best way to defuse the bomb, as officials would read it and quietly ease the political pressure the university was facing. However he never expected such a huge controversy which this week led to the resignations of Professor Cheng as head of the university and Professor Wong as pro-vice-chancellor.
The incident had cost him a lot, undermining his relationship with university colleagues and, worst of all, his mentor. "I haven't had a chance to talk to him," said Dr Chung, almost breaking into tears. "Of course, I hope we will be OK one day. But I dare not expect too much."
Dr Chung said he wouldn't have had such problems if the messages had come from someone else. "My mentor is very different," he said. "If this message was sent to me [directly] from Professor Cheng, then I would not have kept it quiet for so long and I certainly would have fought.
"If I realised things would blow up like this, I would have written the column differently. Rather than clearly stating that I had received such a message through a particular channel, I would have changed it to write about my feelings instead."
Dr Chung said his mental burden eased as soon as he decided on the eve of his July 14 press conference to name the intermediaries: "From that moment on, I did not care about anything, such as my job and my career. All I wanted was to tell the truth."
But the pollster still had to face the ordeal of the 11-day-long university inquiry into his claims, conducted in a courtroom-like atmosphere.
"It was very physically demanding as you have to recall every single fact. The cross-examination is not that friendly," he said. "They [the lawyers] asked questions with their own theories and intentions in mind, trying to establish them from my mouth."
None of this explains why the pollster was prepared to take such a risk in speaking out, something few other scholars would have been prepared to do. But a look at his childhood may provide some answers, revealing a naive idealist with a strong fighting spirit and someone who is well-accustomed to facing pressure.
Born into a middle-class family, with his father a Chinese businessman returning from the United States, Dr Chung never had to worry about being poor. But nor did he show any interest in being wealthy. "I do not like money that much," he told a business reporter, who asked how he invested his money.
"It may sound very unfair to many people who struggle to make a living every day, but I want to be part of a group of people who do not struggle for a material life and do pursue personal interests and ideals," he told the Post.
The slim and gentle scholar has been an active sports player ever since his secondary education at the famous Diocesan Boys School. He swam, played volleyball and, after joining the university in 1977, became a regular hockey player. In 1982, he even won the university's Sportsman of The Year Award.
Perhaps his ability to withstand pressure can be traced back to his insistence on playing hockey, despite his parents' reservations. Hockey is not normally considered a game that Chinese people play. "People always think this is something only for Pakistanis and Indians," he said.
The pollster is also a big fan of astronomy: "Einstein has been my idol since Form Four."
All these interests helped shape his idealism, a sentiment not always welcome in Hong Kong. Unlike other top students at the elite school in Mongkok, who graduated straight into successful careers, Dr Chung followed a more bumpy path. He was first admitted to the University of Hong Kong's Faculty of Law in 1977, a widely sought-after course which, at that time, attracted the cream of local students. But he did not enjoy the course as he soon discovered that studying law was more about case studies than social justice, and went on to fail two subjects.
He quit a year later and joined the Baptist College to study sociology, but then applied to HKU again and retook his advance-level exams, despite strong opposition from his family. He finally rejoined the Pokfulam campus in 1979 to study sociology, received an introductory course from his future mentor, Professor Wong, and has lived and worked on the campus ever since.
Dr Chung joined the Social Science Research Centre in 1987 as an assistant research officer and soon found his goal in life - researching and conducting opinion polls. "My life is as boring as any academic. Half my life has been spent on this very simple goal," he said.
In 1991, he launched his well-known exit polls for the Legislative Council elections. His nine-strong team has so far completed more than 400 projects, covering everything from elections to political reform, the economy, and the popularity of the Chief Executive.
Those who have worked with him in his polling centre say he is a workaholic who is obsessive about his job. One colleague said Dr Chung would drive his mini-van across the SAR, counting billboards and observing campaigns, sleeping in his car overnight.
He also has a large collection of posters and promotional materials from almost everyone who has stood for election since 1991. "He will never even fold or roll up a single leaflet," said one former colleague.
Dr Chung has tried - so far with only limited success - to ease his workaholic habits since 1996, when he married Damaris Hung, a psychologist whom he courted for more than 11 years. The couple had a child, Sheleoni, a year later. Dr Chung said he saw his daughter, who started kindergarten a week ago, as the sun in a blue sky, since that is the meaning of her Chinese name, Ho-nam.
"I should get up early in the morning to take her to school, but I haven't yet managed to do so," he laughed. Almost all his friends say he has never been an early bird and often works until 4am.
Dr Chung said he hoped one day to form a writing team to produce a volume of books on the findings of opinion polls, which could serve as valuable data on the social and political life of the city since 1991.
"Every opinion poll is like a snapshot of society. To produce a volume from the polls would contribute to archival and secondary research. It would be like a telephone book free for others to use, and to develop some theories from. These theories of the political development of Hong Kong are not just useful in this city but also applicable to southern China and other Chinese communities overseas. We are leading the way in these areas."
He said this collection of data was only half complete, and that was a key reason he was so determined to resist pressure to curtail his polls. "If I had to stop now, there would not be a logical watershed and this is not academically sound. The opinion polls on the Chief Executive's popularity are another important social and political indicator. Why do I have to stop? I cannot accept it for just a simple political reason," he said.
Dr Chung said people should see the positive angle of this controversy - that academic freedom would now be better protected.
"If there is a day when I feel tired and I have to give up my work, these recent developments would certainly help my successor to continue. Scholars studying political issues always face problems," he said. "After this incident, the room for academia will be bigger. But unfortunately, we have to pay such a big price and this cost has to be borne by a few people."
Many people might see him as a hero who resisted the pressure of the establishment, but that is an accolade Dr Chung does not care to wear.
"I do not want to be a hero. I am just a human being . . . And I want to go for a holiday now."
Perhaps, then, a well-deserved rest.
Quinton Chan ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's editorial pages.