SCMP Tuesday, August 22, 2000


Bid for truth gets low satisfaction rating


Like it or not, the whole truth of the Robert Chung saga will never be told regardless of the good intentions of the people involved to seek it.

The precise wording of crucial conversations can no longer be retrieved because time has elapsed. The conversations were either not recorded or selectively recorded in the memories of the key players, for various reasons.

What has emerged from the past two weeks remains an incomplete picture of an attempt, or a mere fear of an attempt, by the powers that be to meddle with the work of a leading pollster tracking the Chief Executive's popularity and the Government's performance.

The "find-the-truth" crusade was further sidetracked by a variety of issues brought into an already confused picture. Many of these issues - such as the academic value of opinion polls, the "conflicting" roles of a pollster and a political commentator and the role of the media - were important issues worth public debate on their own merits.

The bigger picture, though, remains centred on whether academics are free from interference, directly or indirectly, by officials and senior university staff either officially or privately.

While there were important discrepancies in the statements of Dr Chung and his mentor Professor Wong Siu-lun on what constituted interference, the evidence given by two other professors about a meeting with vice-chancellor Cheng Yiu-chung shed important light.

Professor Cheng Kai-ming and Professor Felice Lieh-Mak said the vice-chancellor had expressed concern to them, in a meeting in May last year, about Dr Chung's polls. Professor Lieh-Mak considered it "political pressure".

Professor Cheng put it in the context of a perception he had that the university had been "marginalised". He said he had learned from sources the Government did not like the university's polls.

Although Professor Cheng later denied it, the evidence of the two professors appeared to confirm the existence of a sentiment among some senior staff that the Chief Executive was unhappy with Dr Chung's polling from as early as late 1998.

It was against this background that "advice" from a pro-vice-chancellor and a request for "information and comment" from the vice-chancellor were interpreted by Dr Chung as "escalating" pressure for him to stop his work.

Academic and veteran journalist Professor Ying Chan was right to point out that the way university leaders reacted reflected a "culture of subservience".

Academics should have the courage to say no to pressure for them to censor their work. It is their right and responsibility to do so.

The fact a pollster has to live in fear of pressure, respond to criticism in a Beijing-friendly magazine article and ponder the idea of self-censorship of his work may reflect weakness in character on his part and over-reaction.

But the central question is: have the Government and the university done their best to create an environment for an academic to work freely? The public is doubtful. They will remain so at the end of the inquiry.