2 Million Were Said to Be Protesting in Hong Kong but the Math Doesn’t Add Up

For 2 million you'd need to fill more than 36 miles of streets — something we didn't see

The entire population is 7.5 million

The crowd of protesters in Hong Kong on Sunday stretched more than a mile. As the city’s legislature considered a bill that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong, which is semi-autonomous, to China, Civil Human Rights Front, the group that organized the demonstration, estimated that more than a million people had come out to march. Hong Kong police, however, put the number at 240,000 people.

Crowd size is a marker for energy around a cause. “It’s hard to measure enthusiasm based on speeches or noise level,” says Steve Doig, who specializes in data-based crowd-counting as a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. “So the size of the crowd is the token that various sides will want to inflate or deflate.”

In 1996, Congress banned the National Park Service from releasing crowd size estimates after the activist Louis Farrakhan threatened to sue over its calculation that the Million Man March attracted only 400,000 people. (Researchers at Boston University did an independent analysis and found that the crowd was closer to 800,000.) Donald Trump’s claim—that the audience for his inauguration in 2017 was the largest ever—was clearly not true; but his urge to surpass previous numbers was based on comparisons to other fictitious crowd counts. Lyndon Johnson’s swearing-in supposedly had 1.2 million attendees, in 1965. “Those are impossible standards to beat,” Doig says. “The claim that ‘I’m the most popular’ becomes ridiculous.”

Large crowds typically aren’t contained neatly enough for an easy body count unless people gather in an arena or convention hall. “The gold standard is to measure the area containing the crowd and then make a reasonable estimate of the density,” Doig says. “It’s simple math, it’s reality-based.” That’s why parades, or migrating marches, are the hardest of all to quantify, for journalists and police alike.

Doig has a few go-to ways of making his calculations. His first tip: learn The Jacobs Method. “Herbert Jacobs should be enshrined,” Doig says. In the 1960s, Jacobs was a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, whose office overlooked the plaza where protests against the Vietnam War were held. Bricks divided the ground into a pattern of squares. As Jacobs looked down, he created a technique: in a loose crowd, measure one person per ten square feet. “It sounds like a lot of space,” Doig says, “but you’re arms length from everyone’s shoulder.” In a tight crowd, each person has five square feet. “You’re really in each other’s space then,” he says. “There are a lot of ridiculous estimates for one square foot per person, but that’s beyond mosh pit density.”

Doig also likes to imagine the view from a balloon in the sky. Standing at head level, as a new president would during an inauguration, makes crowds look immense—“a sea of humanity,” Doig says. An overhead shot gives better perspective—though that’s hard to come by in Washington, DC, where there are no helicopter flights and no tall buildings; the capital region is also a no drone zone.

He’ll also enlist a team. In 2010, for instance, Doig covered labor protests in Lisbon with the help of several students. They came up with a method based on time: “Ten seconds is pretty much the limit of attention span,” he says. His students positioned themselves at different points along the parade route and counted how many protestors marched by every ten seconds. The team checked for consistent crowd density, and later they compared numbers, before multiplying their tally by the length of time the march took. In the end, the labor unions claimed to have 100,000 protestors. Doig’s team estimated that the actual number was closer to 10,000.

In Hong Kong, because the protests moved through so many streets, the real challenge, Doig says, is in knowing the “available population.” In 2017 Hong Kong had 7.4 million residents. “If they’re claiming 1 million marched, ask yourself if truly one in every seven people is here,” Doig says. “Ask: Are enough people not here to explain how everything in this city is still operating? How many of the population are kids in school right now, not on the street? What percentage of the total population are able-bodied adults?”

It’s also worth checking Google Earth, and trying to measure the potential area in which a crowd can gather. Using this method when reviewing a photograph of the Hong Kong demonstrations (above) published this week in The New York Times, Doig figures that the space in view, Hennessy Road, is 210 meters long and 25 meters across, or some 5,500 square meters. At the front, people were a little less than an arm’s length apart, he observes—tight for a parade, but not as dense as a standing crowd—which would make for one person per square meter (roughly ten square feet, per the Herb Jacobs rule). “An Asian crowd tends to be filled with people who aren’t as, er, large as us beefy Americans,” he says, “and they are more accustomed to being in tighter quarters. So I am arbitrarily going to call this a density of 0.8 square meters per person.” That makes for about 7,000 people in the photo.

“That doesn’t help estimate the total crowd that day because we have no idea of all the streets that may have been filled,” he adds. Buildings in Hong Kong are so tall that satellite images can be tough to collect, and overhead footage becomes nearly impossible to decipher. From what he’s seen from sources on the ground, he would accept conservative estimates—of some quarter of a million protesters in Hong Kong. It would be impossible to make a reliable calculation himself. If 7,000 people fit in 210 meters, there would need to be 142.9 street segments, or about 18.6 miles of streets packed at once to count a million protestors, which seems like too many. None of this is exact science, Doig says. “Is that what happened? Dunno.”

Source: Colombia Journalism Review

  1. Godfree Roberts says

    OK, OK. You can hide behind ‘statistics’ and claim 240,000 protesters, but you must admit that there are at least 2,000,000 Uyghurs locked up in hellish detention camps in Xinjiang. Right? Right?

    1. pooi-hoong chan says

      Uyghur population is about 10 million. Say 5 in a family because no 1/2 child policy for minorities. That means 2 million families and each family has lost a bread winner as active extremists tend to be of working age. There will be millions of Uyghurs begging for food on the streets and also riots.

      1. Godfree Roberts says

        Precisement! In fact, The World Muslim Council sent a dozen inspectors to thoroughly check out their fellow muslims in Xinjiang. Here’s what one of them told The Times of India:

        “During this visit, I did not find any instance of forced labour or cultural and religious repression,” Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the Charge d‘affaires, Pakistan‘s Embassy in China, told the state-run Global Times on Thursday.

        “The imams we met at the mosques and the students and teachers at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute told us that they enjoy freedom in practicing Islam and that the Chinese government extends support for maintenance of mosques all over Xinjiang,” said Baloch, who visited Xinjiang as part of delegation of diplomats.

        “Similarly, I did not see any sign of cultural repression. The Uighur culture as demonstrated by their language, music and dance is very much part of the life of the people of Xinjiang,” she said.

        Asked about the security situation in Xinjiang, which has been “beset by terrorism”, Baloch said, “We learned that the recent measures have resulted in improvement of the security situation in Xinjiang and there have been no incidents of terrorism in recent months.”

        “The counter-terrorism measures being taken are multidimensional and do not simply focus on law enforcement aspects. Education, poverty alleviation and development are key to the counter-terrorism strategy of the Chinese government,” she said.

        Xinjiang‘s regional government invited diplomatic envoys as well as representatives from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Thailand, and Kuwait following reports about detention of thousands of Uighur and other Muslims in massive education camps.

        The UN‘s Geneva-based Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year said that it was alarmed by “numerous reports of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities” being detained in Xinjiang region and called for their immediate release.

        Estimates about them “range from tens of thousands to upwards of a million,” it had said.

        China defended the camps, saying they are re-education camps aimed at de-radicalising sections of the Uighur population from extremism and separatism.

        The US and several other countries besides UN officials have expressed concern over the camps.

        China has been carrying out massive crackdown on the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Xinjiang province, where Uyghurs who formed majority in the region were restive over the increasing settlements of Han community.

        Pakistan and several other Muslim countries faced criticism about their silence over China‘s crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang.

        China has about 20 million Muslims who are mostly Uighurs, an ethnic group of Turkic origin, and Hui Muslims, who are of the Chinese ethnic origin. While Uighurs lived in Xinjiang, bordering Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Hui Muslims resided in Ningxia province.

        A recent report in the Global Times said China passed a five-year plan to ‘sinicize Islam‘ in a bid to make it compatible with its version of socialism.

        “This is China‘s important act to explore ways of governing religion in modern countries,” the report said.

        Baloch said the delegation was given full and open access to the three centres that they visited in Kashgar and Hotan.

        “The training program includes teaching of national common language (Chinese), law and constitution and vocational skills. The students also participate in recreational activities like sports, music and dance. We witnessed several skill classes being offered in these centres,” she said.

        “During the visits to these centres, we had the opportunity to interact with both the management and the students. We observed the students to be in good physical health. The living facilities are fairly modern and comfortable with separate dormitories for men and women. They are being served halal food,” she said.

        She said the Uighur language is being used in official establishments, airports, subway stations, police stations or hotels.

        “Even the copies of the Koran that we saw in the mosques and the Islamic centre were translated into the Uighur language. The most visible sign of protection of Uighur culture by the government is the government-run bilingual kindergarten schools where children learn Putonghua as well as Uighur language and culture from a very young age,” she said.

        1. pooi-hoong chan says

          Thanks for the info. I have spread it around, hope you do not mind.

          1. Godfree Roberts says

            Feel free!

    2. CHUCKMAN says

      I’d be careful about details of claims about the Uyghurs.

      First, we have no good data.

      Perhaps more importantly, China put millions of its own people through re-education camps and sent millions of urban people to work in fields not that many years ago.

      It was harsh and depressing but most of that was not murderous.

      I suspect the efforts with the Uyghurs do not wildly depart from that.

  2. silver749 says

    No mention that no one is demonstrating like this in America and they have disagreements with laws, some public hate of government, obviously some discrimination on black people. Or in Europe. And the EU represses some freedoms. Taiwan wanted a murderer sent back. Not a bad request really. And saying they were peaceful when we saw video that the were not. Using coded social media to better attack police and advance like in a war. Publishing names of family and children of police so others could attack them, similar to what nazi Germany did in 1935, very evil. What is the real scene. Hate filled young people wanting to change government? China the bad man. Some things in China can obviously be better.
    I don’t see the real thing exposed! To keep freedoms. Does not look like that.

  3. CHUCKMAN says

    Just a truly excellent little piece of analysis.

    Of course, all claims around crowd size are very political.

    The Western papers I saw used the “million or two” claim.

    1. David Bedford says

      just like the number of Jews that were ‘exterminated’ and then either buried or cremated, those numbers just don’t add up

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