[SCMP Column] The State of Trust

March 04, 2019

I used to work here in Hong Kong with a US public relations firm that had a whole suite of products branded “TrustWorks”, and had a wonderful time taunting US-based colleagues that for US companies, the concept of trust was a contradiction in terms: the legal labyrinths embroiling business life in the US were after all built on the foundational assumption that you could trust no-one. That, after all, was why so much time and money was spent on lawyers drafting tightly crafted legal contracts.

By contrast, I used to argue that Asia was the home of trust. In the absence of strong or accessible legal systems, business could only work effectively on the basis that you could trust – and had a long-term trusting relationship with - whoever you did business with.

My US colleagues boisterously brushed off my obvious cynicism, and sold their “TrustWorks” products to clients across Asia anyway. I never discovered whether they worked, or were profitable.

But as the PR agency Edelman last week released their annual “Trust Barometer” measuring the state of “trust” worldwide, I was reminded that however well-founded my cynicism about the American relationship with trust, the concept is obviously critical to our lives, and in particular in business where week by week you so often have to try to engage with total strangers for mutual profit.

Based on a survey of more than 33,000 people across 27 markets, the Edelman Barometer has over its 19 year life always provided fascinating insights, however shaky its methodological foundations, and however variable the possible assumptions underpinning people’s responses.

How, for example, do you interpret in this year’s report why China, Indonesia and India show by far the highest levels of trust among all 27 surveyed economies? At the bottom, I can understand why Russia attracts trust from just 29 per cent of the survey respondents. But why was Japan second to bottom with 39 per cent, and why should trust in Spain tumble 7 per cent to just 40 per cent?

When you learn that 46 per cent of respondents believe “my system is failing me”, how on earth do you discover what failings the respondents are thinking about? When you see that trust levels in the UK have improved from a dismal 39 per cent in 2018 to an almost-as-dismal 43 per cent in 2019, does this tell you that attitudes to government handling of Brexit have softened? Or that people are less anxious about the state of the National Health Service? Who can tell? Edelman colleagues do not even try. But their insights are fascinating nevertheless – in particular within individual economies.

Hong Kong this year provides a powerful illustration. Trust levels in government, media, business and NGOs surged in Hong Kong by an average 10 percentage points to 55 between 2018 and 2019. That was the biggest jump of any of the 27 economies surveyed.

Trust among under 24-year-olds was higher than any other age group (69 per cent for NGOs, and 60 per cent for the media). What does that tell us about the grumpy state of Hong Kong millennials that we have been wringing our hands about so much in recent years? If their grumpiness is linked with the still-persistent unaffordability of housing, what has happened to cheer then up?

Adrian Warr, Edelman’s MD in Hong Kong, and Leo Wood, their Head of Reputation (is that a real title?), offered some thoughts: first, the rise in average household incomes from HK$25,000 a month in 2012 to HK$34,800 last year, has clearly been important in lifting the community mood. So too that unemployment, at 2.8 per cent, is at its lowest point for 20 years. Linked with this, serious crime has fallen by 30 per cent since 2012, from 1,062 cases per 100,000 people, to 728 last year.

Rising trust might also be linked to that fact that Hong Kong people are less worried about automation as a threat to their future jobs (48 per cent, versus a global average of 55 per cent), less concerned at the adequacy of their skills for future jobs (51 per cent versus a global average of 59 per cent, and surprisingly less concerned about the past year’s mounting trade conflict (51 per cent versus 57 per cent globally).

The most striking difference arose in response to the question on “whether my government is failing me”: just 23 per cent of Hong Kong survey respondents believed this was so. The global average was 47 per cent, which suggests a generally deep sense of disaffection with ruling elites worldwide. Even in staunchly patriotic Singapore, 31 per cent believed the government was failing them.

It is true that Edelman found that 50 per cent in Hong Kong were “not sure” whether the government was failing them, which might say something about the inscrutability of the Hong Kong government, or their skill in deflecting blame to other parts of the community. But the fact that such a small number in Hong Kong believed the government was failing them speaks volumes.

It also suggests that voters are happy with Carrie Lam, compared with her predecessor CY Leung. Over his five years in office, Edelman tracked trust in CY Leung’s government bumping along in the low 40s, bottoming at 40 in 2016. Carrie Lam by the autumn of 2017 saw the Edelman trust barometer rise to 46 per cent, and to 55 per cent last year. It is tempting to believe that her style of outreach and consultation has played a part in lifting the community mood.

As trust in the media has improved (it hit a very low point during and immediately after the Occupy Hong Kong upheaval in the autumn of 2014), it is fascinating to note that social media in Hong Kong have taken a reputational dive. While a record 65 per cent say they trust traditional media, just 44 per cent trust social media. Around 69 per cent said they feared false news and misinformation – whether from the Mainland or for other reasons, Edelman did not make clear.

In sum, Carrie Lam and her government team ought to be pleased. We seem to offer a little safe haven away from the catastrophe of Brexit and populist explosions elsewhere. Whether that safe haven is real, or we are simply naïve, only time – and more Trust Barometers – will tell.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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