Beijing-backed media in Hong Kong recently began citing public opinion research findings from a previously unknown pollster, with a name that is confusingly similar to a well-known and trusted research body.
In early June, the Beijing-backed Wen Wei Po cited research carried out by the "Hong Kong Public Opinion Survey Center" and commissioned by the pro-China Our Hong Kong Foundation as saying that the majority welcomed the recent imposition of a draconian national security law on the city.
"The latest survey results show that they agree that Hong Kong is responsible for safeguarding national security, and that 'Hong Kong independence' and foreign powers undermine social stability and harm the country," the Wen Wei Po reported on June 11.
According to the paper, the poll was based on a random sample of audio interviews with 1,366 Hong Kong residents carried out in early June, and formed part of a portfolio of pro-China reporting paving the way for the national security law, which has begun a crackdown on peaceful dissent and criticism of the government in schools and the media and on the streets since it took effect on July 1.
While its results were used as evidence of public support for the new law, professional pollsters questioned its methodology and data.
An investigation by RFA found that the organization cited has conducted at least three opinion polls on the national security law in the space of a month, all of which show that respondents overwhelmingly support the development.
But a paper trail clearly connects it to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's representatives in Hong Kong.
The organization which produced the research was initially hard to trace, especially as its name in Chinese is very similar to that of the well-established and respected Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), which was once run by the University of Hong Kong (HKU), but was recently made independent.
However, a July 21 PORI poll found that public ratings of the city for "freedom" and "stability" had fallen significantly compared with an earlier survey in April, while public perception of "prosperity" had reached a record low since July 2003, along with ratings of "civilization," "equality," and "fairness."
Public perception of academic, artistic, and journalistic freedom, as well as the freedom to protest and demonstrate also fell significantly, the PORI survey found.
Since its first survey was commissioned, the Our Hong Kong Foundation has issued three press releases claiming widespread public support for the law, each of which cited the center's findings, but with changing results that showed public support trending higher each time, from 57 percent in early June, to 64 percent, and then 67 percent more recently.
No details released to media
However, unlike the PORI research, which has been a staple of media reporting since before the 1997 handover to China, no detailed data has been released to the media.
An employee surnamed Lai at the Our Hong Kong Foundation confirmed that the research had been commissioned by his organization, but declined to comment further.
"Our latest public opinion research has focused on this issue," Lai said. "All of the material that is allowed to be made public is already in the press releases."
A detailed online search confirmed that unlike the detailed data released by PORI, there is no additional or more detailed information available on the polls.
However, some references cited the research as being under the aegis of the University of Hong Kong's social sciences department, while others had mislabeled it as originating with PORI, prompting heated debates about its origins in online forums and chat rooms.
No other references to the organization were found prior to late May.
A company search showed that it had indeed registered as a company, the only way for civic organizations to be considered legitimate in Hong Kong.
Among its registered directors is Ma Fung-kwok, a Hong Kong deputy to China's National People's Congress (NPC), the body charged with issuing political decrees on Hong Kong via "interpretations" made by its standing committee.
The Our Hong Kong Foundation is listed as a think tank founded by the pro-China Bauhinia magazine, which is in turn indirectly owned by a company under the aegis of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong.
Its founding chairman is former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.
'This isn't normal practice'
Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor of social policy at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University who works with PORI, said he had recently been made aware that a pro-China pollster was using a similar name to PORI's to publish substandard research.
"I have noticed that they have never released their questionnaires or sampling methods to the public," Chung told RFA. "This isn't normal practice in the field of public opinion research."
"We [at PORI] openly disclose all of our survey data, the questionnaires are openly available to the public, and the sampling method can be seen by everyone," he said. "We even tell people how we calculate the weighting."
"For a survey to retain public respect in the long term ... it needs to be transparent, with a methodology that stands up to scrutiny, and which meets the requirements of the profession," Chung said.
He said the move was similar to an attempt by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to claim broad public support for the national security law through a signature campaign that garnered three million names.
"The Our Hong Kong Foundation was founded by Tung Chee-hwa a few years ago, and it's like the Hong Kong Coalition. They are all run by the same bunch of people, all of whom are interconnected," Chung said.
Political pressure on pollsters
Hong Kong's pollsters first came under political pressure in 2000, when Robert Chung, then director of the Public Opinion Programme at HKU, canceled a popularity survey of Tung's administration after being pressured by the then chief executive's aide.
PORI itself was raided by police on the eve of democratic primary elections in Hong Kong last month.
He said PORI's loss of university funding could also have been the result of behind-the-scenes pressure from Chinese or Hong Kong officials.
"Since the 2014 Umbrella movement in particular, I have had the feeling that the government may have some kind of tacit understanding with the management of some universities to limit freedom of expression as much as possible, and to limit their sense of social responsibility," Chung said.
He said PORI had lost funding from HKU and now shares offices with non-government groups.
But he said public opinion had meanwhile turned strongly anti-government since Lam first proposed allowing extradition to mainland China, sparking a year of anti-government protests that culminated in the permanent stationing of mainland Chinese state security police in the city.
"Both the government and the pro-establishment camp should take account of [genuine] public opinion in the process of taking decisions," Chung said.
Sing Ming, an associate professor of social science at the University of Science and Technology, believes that pro-China opinion polls are likely to keep popping up with increasing frequency.
"The methodology of those polls is likely very simple, in order to rationalize some highly controversial policies of the government, especially those that suppress human rights in Hong Kong," Sing told RFA.
"I also think it is worth noting that the mainstream media, including TV stations, will be suppressed and manipulated more and more via their sources of funding," he said. "In that case, the manipulated opinion polls will start to take root via the mainstream media."
Chung said those in power should take account of genuine public opinion, but that their refusal to do so had led Hong Kong to its current situation.
He said he would have no regrets if he were jailed because of his public opinion research work.
Reported by Gigi Lee and Tam Yiu-chung for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.