(This article was originally published on April 10, 2016 on fragrantdelta.)
To listen to the press, talk of Hong Kong independence is hotter than August on a Mong Kok rooftop. Mainland leaders and their local mouthpieces warn against “radicals’” noncompliance; angry observers bewail socio-legal implications; armies of cheerleaders and detractors join the fray. It’s a high-stakes and ominous shouting match, yes. But how salient is this issue anyway? The media can’t tell us that.
On the one hand, all “news” is exceptional. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be worth reading. On the other, the “new normal” of the digital age has led many a newspaper down the road of hype in a life and death struggle to attract readers and, hopefully, to entice advertisers. Putting issues in perspective is not their priority.
Providing that perspective isn’t easy. Fortunately, there are some tools that can help. Google Trends is one of them. This Google invention divides the frequency of a keyword’s searches over total search volume in a given time and place. In simple terms, Google Trends provides measures of the relative importance of keywords, and the issues behind them, to web searchers.
For example, using Google Trends, we can verify that Hong Kong Google users’ relative interest in “Korean dramas” (“韓劇”) has increased markedly over the past few years. In contrast, “Taiwan dramas” (“台劇”) earn about as much relative attention as they have earned since 2004.
Commercial uses aside, such information is highly valuable. Scholars looking to predict social phenomena, such as political movement mobilisation and voter participation, have found Google search term data to be less affected by desirability bias – the tendency of survey respondents to report what they believe are pleasing answers. This is because most users assume their searches are confidential so are more candid in their responses.
Of course, there are drawbacks too. Google Trends does not measure absolute changes in term usage and provides no indicator of a concept’s “popularity” or “desirability”, both of which may be lacking where interest in a term is present. Also, large and temporary changes in interest (spikes) can distort relative comparisons. Finally, there may be a bias toward better-educated or connected users.
Nevertheless, Google Trends can help slice through media chatter and offers a proxy measure of the relative importance of issues in the minds of the general public. These days, perhaps no issue is riper for deeper analysis than Hong Kong independence.
Independence Talk: Not So New
“Hong Kong independence” (“香港獨立” + “港獨”) may be a sizzling political topic in Hong Kong at the moment, but almost all media reports neglect an important point: general interest in the term has always existed. Since 2004, the relative prevalence of “Hong Kong independence” searches has tracked that of those for the establishment’s adopted political framework, “One Country, Two Systems” (“一國兩制”). In fact, independence has led One Country, Two Systems in average web search prevalence over the whole period.
This said, “Hong Kong independence” does seem to have gained in relative search frequency recently, and a spike in searches is currently underway. But this is less important than whether the search interest will be sustained or not over the coming months. Only a sustained rise would suggest a higher baseline for independence interest.
Localism: A Mild Rise
Searchers’ interest in the term “local” (“本土”), as is used in “localism”, is slightly harder to assess due to the many nonpolitical contexts in which the term can be used: local culture, art, brands, films, food (“本土”, “文化”, “藝術”, “品牌”, “電影”, “食物”). Fortunately, Google Trends allows users to filter out these words.
A search that compares “Hong Kong independence”, “One Country, Two Systems”, and “local” between early 2004 and today yields an unhelpful image due to a major spike in relative search frequency following the February 2016 Mong Kok riots. The real story emerges when the time series is limited to the end of January 2016. One can see that, from 2013 onward, baseline interest in “local” has definitely risen.
Democracy: Notable Resilience
Another topic of discussion in recent years is the concept of “democracy” (“民主”), not including the related terms “party”, “camp” and “forces” (黨, 派, “力量”). “Democracy” has simmered in importance for over a decade and temporarily flares to the forefront of the public imagination, notably around key dates. One might expect it to go hand-in-hand with “political reform” (“政改”) and even, potentially, “Hong Kong independence”.
In fact, the baseline for “democracy” searches is much higher than those of the other two concepts. Clearly, Hongkongers are fond of the term, at least in their web inquiries, and that interest seems to be durable.
Livelihood Issues: Trends Worth Tracking
Following the June 2015 rejection of the government’s political reform package, senior officials announced that, for the remainder of its term, the administration would focus on livelihood issues. While there are grounds for this shift in focus, caution is warranted.
It is possible to compare searches for “democracy” with many bread-and-butter issues. For instance, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying likes to refer to his record on the housing (“房屋”) issue. In response, one might argue that the real livelihood issue is less “housing” itself than it is the ability to acquire housing at a reasonable price (“樓價”). Otherwise, many who wait for public housing could turn to the private market.
A comparison of these terms with “medical care” (“醫療”), “retirement” (“退休”) and “democracy” is insightful. Housing is indeed of major relative significance to Hongkongers, most likely due to its centrality in everyday life. Its relative importance has also risen with time.
As for “price” (red line), its salience, while rising, is still comparable to that of “democracy” (purple line). The same can be said of “retirement” (green line). Moreover, at various times, “democracy” surges to equal or surpass “medical care” in relative importance.
The implications are clear. In a crisis, the administration may suffer political costs if it believes it can use livelihood issues as an excuse to evade responsibility for maintaining, solidifying or enhancing democratic institutions. Despite what they may indicate on surveys, Hong Kong residents pay attention to democracy enough to prioritize that term in Internet searches at discrete moments.
Belt and Road: Really, CY?
The Chief Executive suffered much criticism following the delivery of his 2016 Policy Address. Critics were particularly disappointed in the priority Leung assigned to Beijing’s One Belt, One Road policy concept. Google Trends reveals the lack of wisdom in Leung’s approach.
The above chart, dated from January 2012, compares relative search frequency of “Hong Kong independence” (red line) with a sample livelihood issue, “retirement” (blue line) and a new variable, “One Belt, One Road” (“一帶一路”).
Understandably, Hongkongers are relatively more interested in using Google to learn about retirement than about independence. The same goes for Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy concept. In fact, following the spike that accompanied the Policy Address, Hongkongers’ interest in “One Belt, One Road” fell back to parity with “Hong Kong independence”. So while President Xi’s policy concept may be of interest to the investment finance set, the average Hongkonger truly would have grounds to question the need for 48 mentions in CY Leung’s speech.
Grains of Salt
Critics of this analysis will have many bones to pick. Indeed, it is simply not possible to draw conclusions about the priorities of a population based on relative changes in search term input alone. Even if it were possible, it would be difficult to identify the most appropriate terms to use. But drawing authoritative conclusions on the public’s priorities is not the purpose of this exercise.
Rather, the above data reveals the need for all local stakeholders to take what they learn from the media with a dose of skepticism. Those who wish to understand key issues and their effects on society must expand their analytical toolbox and take a dose of critical thinking. Beyond this point, policy statements, not to mention public policies themselves, must be fashioned accordingly.
In an era where the media increasingly plays to the lowest common denominator, media consumers – especially those who directly impact policymaking – must raise their standards.