Hong Kong's dirty little secret: Racism
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - This city's dirty little secret has finally been addressed in an
anti-racism bill passed nearly 40 years after Hong Kong signed onto an
international covenant against racial discrimination.
But pardon Hong Kong's minority groups as they pointedly refrain from
celebration. Their lack of enthusiasm is easy to explain: the Hong Kong
government is largely exempt from the bill's provisions, and mainland Chinese,
arguably the group most discriminated against here, receive scant protection
from the new law.
Those hoping to see Hong Kong develop into a more multicultural society in the
manner of Singapore and Malaysia will be
disappointed, but the legislation, passed last week by a unanimous Legislative
Council, nevertheless marks a milestone in this predominantly Chinese city's
relationship with minorities.
Although the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
Discrimination was extended to Hong Kong in 1969, a succession of British
governors did precious little to address the problem, prompting complaints from
the United Nations about the city's lack of progress in establishing a fair
society for ethnic minorities. While the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC)
was established in 1996, a year before the handover to Chinese rule, it has
been predictably ineffectual because of the lack of any legal framework that
would have given it teeth. Now that framework is finally in place - but there
are still lots of missing teeth.
The good news is that, once the anti-racism bill is enacted, "discrimination,
harassment and vilification on the ground of race" will be illegal in Hong
Kong. That landlord who refused to rent to you because you are not Chinese is
now a criminal, as is the employer who refused to hire you and even the taxi
driver who refused to pick you up. Racism has never been a nasty, overt affair
in Hong Kong, but it is nonetheless a deeply embedded part of the culture. The
bill, it supporters state, marks a turning point in changing that culture.
Hong Kong is a city of 7 million people, 95% of whom are ethnic Chinese. The
remaining 5% include Europeans, Indians, Pakistanis and Nepalis, who can offer
ample testimony to the city's long-standing, casual form of racism. Hong Kong
is also home to more than 250,000 domestic helpers from the Philippines,
Indonesia and Thailand, who live on the fringes of society. All these
minorities can take heart from the new legislation.
As critics rightly point out, however, the law is as noteworthy for what it
leaves out as for what it includes. The biggest complaint among human-rights
activists is that the bill lets the government off the hook. Many of the
government's public functions will not be covered by the legislation lest - or
so government spokesmen claimed - city officials face an avalanche of frivolous
lawsuits from opportunistic minorities out to make easy money. This exemption
not only goes against international practice; it also defies common sense and,
in the final analysis, means that branches of the government such as the police
and immigration departments cannot be held legally accountable for racial
In response to a storm of protest against the government exemption, EOC
chairman Raymond Tang Yee-bong proposed a compromise: rather than submit to
each of the bill's anti-discrimination provisions, he suggested that the
government instead make a general legal commitment to promote racial equality.
Even that, however, was too much for the administration of Chief Executive
Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to accept, leading to doubts about how rigorous the Tsang
government will be when it comes to enforcing the new law.
Those doubts were only exacerbated by the administration's insistence that
protection against language discrimination should not be included in the bill.
But, in a rare and embarrassing occurrence, even government-friendly lawmakers
turned against the administration on this point, and a prohibition against
language discrimination is a feature of the adopted legislation.
In a telling omission, however, the bill does little to prevent discrimination
against recent immigrants from the mainland. To an outsider, this may seem a
small point - after all, how can recent arrivals from the mainland be
considered a minority group vulnerable to discrimination when they are Chinese?
And, indeed, that was the government's argument for leaving them out. While, in
the end, that argument prevailed, it does not hide the fact that mainlanders
suffer some of the worst discrimination in Hong Kong.
Whether it's tour guides or shop owners trying to cheat them, teachers who
don't want to teach them or employers who don't want to hire them, stories of
the city's enduring prejudices against their brothers and sisters from across
the border are legion. Eleven years after the handover, too many Hong Kong
people still regard their mainland brethren as rubes and social leeches who
undermine their culture and threaten their way of life. The irony of these
outdated attitudes is rich now that Hong Kong's prosperity is dependent on
China's continuing economic boom.
Ask mainland immigrants dwelling in the slum of Tin Shui Wai - aka the "City of
Sadness" - if they feel they get a fair deal and you will most certainly get an
earful. Government neglect is one big reason that unemployment, crime, suicide,
child abuse and general misery are so disproportionately high there. The fact
that these residents of Tin Shui Wai are not an ethnic minority is a moot
point. That does not make the discrimination they suffer any less real. They
are a cultural minority deserving of protection in legislation that Hong Kong
now holds up to the world as a reflection of its progress as a fair and humane
In the absence of any legal commitment from the Tsang administration, Stephen
Lam Sui-lung, secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, has promised
"administrative guidelines" to cover the holes in the anti-racism legislation.
He has hailed the new law as a victory, a conclusion with which most
human-rights activists offer qualified agreement, and EOC chairman Tang has
called on everyone to live up to the spirit, not just the letter, of the law.
That's the tricky part. For too many, there are letters missing, and the spirit
remains in doubt. Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong
International School. He can be reached at email@example.com.