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Lies, damned lies and government surveys

in HONG KONG, 21/03/2011

Survey: Majority of Hong Kong people does not accept homosexuality More than seven out of 10 Hong Kong people regard homosexuality as unacceptable in society, according to a social survey released Tuesday. Fridae.com’s Hong Kong correspondent, Nigel Collett, discusses a disturbing survey report by the Hong Kong Women’s Commission.

Homosexual relationships were unacceptable, 72.4 per cent of respondents said in the survey of 3,000 people. Only 8.5 per cent of men and 13.7 per cent of women said they could accept homosexuality in society. Among people aged 18 to 34, 22.6 per cent of women and 11.8 per cent of men said homosexuality was acceptable. Around 65 per cent of people in that younger age group said homosexuality was unacceptable. The survey by the government-funded Women's Commission shows stubbornly traditional views on personal morality in the city, where many gays keep their sexual orientation secret from their families.

This report was prompted by a press release which had emanated a few days before from the Women’s Commission (WoC), a QUANGO (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation) established by the Hong Kong Government, according to their website,  to enable women in Hong Kong to fully realise their due status, rights and opportunities in all aspects of life.

Between February and May 2010, Policy 21, a subsidiary of Hong Kong University, acting as consultants for the WoC, had carried out a survey in which 3,000 women were interviewed face-to-face (with a response rate of 66%) to answer the question: What do Women and Men in Hong Kong Think About the Status of Women at Home, Work and in Social Environments?

Innocuous enough, one might think, as were the vast majority of the survey’s reported results. But one paragraph of the English survey results, Paragraph 3.5, was anything but. It said: Same-sex relationship was still generally unacceptable in the society

3.5 Concerning the acceptability of homosexuality in the society, over 70% (72.4%) of persons said they found homosexual relationship unacceptable. More women (13.7%) than men (8.5%) accepted homosexuality, but they were still a minority. A relatively higher proportion of those who indicated acceptance of homosexuality were in the younger age group of 18-34 years old. Among them, more women (22.6%) than men (11.8%) expressed acceptance. This notwithstanding, 66.8% of males and 64.1% of females in this age group indicated that they did not accept homosexuality.

For those with knowledge of the recent history of the Hong Kong Government’s policies towards the LGBT community, this survey result was alarming. The Government continues to refuse publicly to implement the obligations it undertook when it signed a series of UN human rights conventions, obligations which include enacting legislation to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. It does this because, it claims, there is no consensus in Hong Kong society for such reform, and it bases its views upon survey results and the mound of anti-LGBT hate mail it receives from the religious right. Apparently, here was yet another piece of ammunition for the Government and opponents of the LGBT community to use to deny the latter its rights.

The survey was doubly dangerous in that it appeared to show not only a dismally poor level of acceptance of homosexuality in Hong Kong society, but actually a worsening trend. Back in 2006, a Government sponsored survey (the results can be viewed here in PDF) was carried out by Market Research and Transport Planning, a consultant. It found, based on results from 2,040 telephone respondents, that:

* 47% said homosexuality was normal.
* 41% said it did not conflict with family values.
* 49% said it did not conflict with the morals of the city.
* 78.9% accepted gay people as colleagues.
* 78% accepted them as neighbours.
* 77.5% accepted them as work superiors.
* 76.1% accepted them as friends.
* 60.2% accepted them as teachers.
* 40% accepted them as family members.

Whilst still not a cause for rejoicing, the 2006 survey did give cause for quiet satisfaction and showed that the views of Hong Kong’s generally conservative society were moving in the right direction. As recently as 1996, for instance a similar survey had found that over 95% of the population opposed legislation to outlaw discrimination, and it was that survey which had stymied efforts then underway in the Legislative Council to introduce such legislation. The Hong Kong Government kept pretty quiet about the 2006 results.

In May 2005, to keep the UN off its back, the Government established the Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Unit (GISOU) inside the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau. Its website is at cmab.gov.hk/en/issues/equal_gender.htm. It was set up supposedly: to enhance the equal opportunities for people of different sexual orientation and transgendered persons.

In its almost six year lifetime, GISOU has achieved nothing other than to design a few posters, create a crossword competition and alienate the entire LGBT community by inviting an ‘ex-gay’ organisation, New Creation (a christian-funded body advocating ‘reparative therapy’) to join the Sexual Minorities Forum (SMF). This is a council that meets several times a year and was intended to be the forum in which the Government meets the LGBT community. The SMF was at its inception a very small acorn and the Government has deliberately planted a worm at its core. GISOU itself is, in fact, a fig leaf for Government inactivity and history makes it plain that the Government is not exactly impartial in the way it interprets ‘public consensus’. At its best, Government policy can be interpreted as ‘anything for a quiet life’. At its worst, many suspect that Government policy is swayed by far too great a Christian influence inside the ranks of its officials.

So the survey results seemed a windfall for the LGBT community’s fundamentalist enemies and for the Hong Kong Government’s policy of perpetual delay.

Things were not, though, exactly as they seemed. Swift research found that the Chinese version of the survey (which, of course, was the original, as the research was conducted in Cantonese) mentioned ‘homosexuality’ nowhere, and that where the English version has ‘homosexuality’ the Chinese reads ‘same sex partnership’. Was this a slip or something more sinister? The reputation of the WoC amongst the LGBT community prior to this incident had not been good; it was seen as a bureaucratic and unresponsive arm of the Government, though one perhaps, that could still be credited with possessing good feminist intentions. The community was not, though, about to credit it with anything positive without confirmation. In December, Hong Kong’s LGBT alliance, the Tongzhi Community Joint Meeting (TCJM), took up the cudgels and attempted to open a dialogue with the WoC; to date it has had no response at all to requests for either public clarification of the survey results or for a meeting.

The TCJM took the issue up at the SMF held in December. Perhaps as a result of GISOU’s committing itself at that meeting to further the investigation, on 11 February the WoC amended the English published survey results. Yet, they still did not get it right. Instead of reference to ‘homosexuality’, Paragraph 3.5 of the survey results now refers to ‘same-sex relationship’. The amended version can be seen in full here.

No public announcement of this change was made and no explanation was given. Of course, this is no benefit at all to those seeking to repair the damage done by the original wording, for the meaning is little different from the first mis-translation. What the Chinese survey reports as a majority antipathetic to ‘same-sex partnerships’ - ie to an officially recognised form of partnership bringing legal rights and responsibilities approximate to marriage - now reads in the English as a hostility to same-sex relationships, ie homosexuality by another name.

The issue is by no means ended. The TCJM is determined that this error should not go into the record for use in future against the community. It continues to seek a meeting with the WoC and intends to initiate a campaign against the mis-reported survey if the WoC gives no adequate response.

I should add that Fridae.com has sought on four separate occasions to interview a representative from the WoC or to elicit a comment from them. To date, we have received not even an acknowledgement of our communications.

If lines are ever opened with WoC, it will be possible to make some evaluation of their survey’s methodology. This may yet reveal something of importance even in the reported disapproval of same-sex partnerships. It is now recognised in academia that opinion poll results differ greatly depending on the words chosen for a survey’s questions. For instance, responses to ‘homosexuals’ have been found to differ from those to ‘gay men’ and ‘lesbians.’ Phrasing survey questions in a way that focusses on people instead of on abstract phenomena may adversely affect results, for it is possible that respondents in Hong Kong are less accepting of abstract phenomena (eg ‘same-sex partnerships’) than they are of people (‘gays’ or ‘tongzhi’). Focussing attention on people helps to humanise issues; note that the 2006 government survey's questions on acceptability focussed on people. Furthermore, face to face interviews on socially-sensitive topics may produce different results from those produced by more anonymous methods allowing respondents to be more truthful. How Policy 21 went about its task, we just don’t know.

Until the WoC comes out of its closet, the validity of its survey, even on the subject of Hong Kong’s views of same-sex partnerships, will remain to be determined.

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