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Unacknowledged prejudice

April 26, 2001

Racial discrimination in Hong Kong

Interviews with Hong Kong residents show that racist attitudes and practices are common in the territory, write Christine Loh and Kelley Loper. But the Hong Kong government has consistently refused to consider enacting legislation banning racial discrimination. Local and international pressure could change that position, they argue.

 


 

 

 

HONG KONG does not like to talk about racial discrimination.

Doggedly insisting that the problem is not serious, the government of the Special Administration Region (SAR) has maintained that there is no need for legislation to prohibit racism. Believing that a bit of public education should suffice, for the last couple of years the government has provided a small annual budget for community groups projects that aim to promote racial harmony.

While there are few reported cases of racially inspired violence, racial discrimination is, in fact, widespread in Hong Kong, a supposed internationally minded city. Hong Kong Against Racial Discrimination (HARD), a non-governmental organization dedicated to fighting for legislation on race discrimination, found a wide range of experiences of racial discrimination at all levels of society after calling for case studies from among the local population.

A few examples illustrate how deep-rooted racism is in Hong Kong:

 

 

 

 

  • An Indian man was unable to rent a luxury flat during the economic downturn because of his ethnicity, although his company offered to pay the landlord above market value.
     
  • A young woman was asked to change her name before she was offered a job as an English teacher so her students would not guess she was Indian.
     
  • A black man from Africa was told by his employer at a learning center that he was a “commercial risk” to the company apparently because of the color of his skin. A well-qualified teacher, the man had applied for a job at the center four times and was hired only after a foreign teacher intervened on his behalf.
     
  • A young, professional Filipina woman was ignored in shops and treated badly by the security staff of her building.
     
  • Three black men from Africa were harassed, spat at, called derogatory names referring to their race and threatened with a belt.
     
  • A landlord refused to rent a flat to a Nepalese man and stated directly that he would not rent to Nepalese people.
     
  • Nurses in a public hospital did not help a sick Filipina woman who needed to use the toilet. They continued to refuse even when she fell to the floor.
     
  • A taxi driver waved away an Indian couple who were waiting first in a taxi queue but picked up a Chinese man who was next in line.
     
  • A Nepalese man entered a clothing shop and asked about the merchandise. Sales staff waved him away shouting, “No, no, no!”
     
  • A man yelled angrily at an ethnic Indian woman on the subway after she accidentally nudged him and told her she should just “go home” to India. Her family has made Hong Kong their home for generations.

These are not isolated incidents. Ask members of ethnic minority groups in Hong Kong — especially those with darker skin — if they have ever experienced racial discrimination and you are certain to hear a litany of stories such as these. The attitudes that lead to acts of discrimination are widespread in Hong Kong but are seldom acknowledged. Children, however, are astonishingly open when asked about discrimination and often reveal their elders’ feelings about certain ethnic and cultural groups, as these comments collected by HARD show:

 

 

  • Jason, 13: “I know that most of the Hong Kong Chinese people think that Indians are dirty and smelly. Sometimes these opinions come from the newspaper.”
  • Philip, 11: admitted that his mom “hates taking the lift after an Indian has just used it. She can’t stand the way they smell.”
  • Audrey, 14: believes, “Mainland Chinese are very dirty. They spit on the floor.”
  • Eric, 13: “Hong Kong Chinese don’t have respect for Filipinos. Because they work for us, people think they are inferior and not intelligent.”

Some adults actually reveal deep-seated intolerance while at the same time claiming discrimination does not exist. The following quotes are taken from submissions to a government consultation on racial discrimination completed in 1997. Ironically, these submissions were used to back the government’s claim that the majority would not support legislation. In fact, many of the views collected reveal racist attitudes and point to a clear need for greater public understanding of racial discrimination.

 

 

 

  • Peter suggested that the victims of racial discrimination need to be educated “not to act so differently from others. Most of [those] who are laughed at do not get laughed at for the color of their skin, but for what they do, like dressing strangely — out of fashion, or simply wrapping their heads.”
  • Sally felt that “Mainland Chinese complain about ‘racial discrimination’ probably because many of them behave in an anti-social manner.”
  • KC thinks that “[The Filipino maids], instead of excusing themselves by blaming racism, could try to clean up their act by behaving in a dignified manner and the feedback could turn positive.”

Although attitudes such as these have existed for a long time, discussion about racism has been minimal. Victims are often reluctant to speak publicly about their experiences because they have no channels to voice their complaints or any hopes for redress. Some also fear retribution by employers or others who may be discriminating against them. Many people believe that discrimination only exists when it is accompanied by violence and do not comprehend how emotionally and psychologically painful discrimination can be to its victims. Also, there is little understanding about the meaning of discrimination and how it affects society. Efforts to educate have been meager at best and prejudice against minority groups is common.

Of course, attitudes are difficult to change and legislation is not a panacea. However, equal opportunities laws are crucial for several reasons: First of all, legal protections are important in addressing the worst instances of discrimination. Victims deserve recourse and remedy through legal channels where necessary. Also, Hong Kong has seen in five years of experience with other equal opportunities laws that legislation leads to greater awareness and consciousness raising. Indeed, laws are the first step in what should be a broad-based education policy. Legislation would demonstrate the government’s commitment to eradicating racial discrimination. Continuing to deny that there is a problem, as the government has done, only hampers its own efforts to educate.

The push for anti-discrimination laws is not new. In 1994, legislator Anna Wu introduced a comprehensive bill covering a variety of equal opportunities issues including racial discrimination. This prompted the government to propose the Sex Discrimination Ordinance (SDO) and the Disability Discrimination Ordinance (DDO) as alternatives to this comprehensive approach. Both laws were passed in 1995. But racial and other forms of discrimination were excluded. In 1997, Elizabeth Wong proposed a bill outlawing racial discrimination based on Wu’s draft, but the majority of lawmakers did not support the legislation, claiming that it was not the right time.

Between 1998 and 2000, legislator Christine Loh tried to put forward a re-drafted bill on racial discrimination, following the format of the existing equal opportunities laws. This effort was unsuccessful, because the Hong Kong government would not give the approval required by the post-1997 constitution, the Basic Law. This requires that lawmakers obtain the consent of the Chief Executive to present any bill that will affect government policy. HARD was born during that time to help create a climate of opinion in support of enacting legislation.

Now there are signs that the government is beginning to take the issue more seriously. Victims have become more willing to speak out and new surveys reveal that racial discrimination is a greater problem than previously acknowledged. People are beginning to listen. The government now admits it will “keep an open mind” and there is word of a new review to assess the situation.

The business community has also become interested. Hong Kong aspires to become a “world city” and more enlightened business leaders understand that treating people fairly is an important element in achieving that goal. When companies hire employees based on their merits rather than irrelevant factors such as skin color, the company ultimately gains from the more effective use of human resources. A level playing field improves the competitiveness of individual firms and, by extension, Hong Kong’s overall competitiveness. Hong Kong benefits when visitors, tourists, migrant workers and professionals — who all contribute greatly to Hong Kong’s economy — are welcomed rather than disdained as “smelly,” “stupid,” “strange” or “dirty.” Embracing the reality of a diverse society can lead to greater creativity, innovation and achievement.

Discussion of racial discrimination has become a key topic internationally in recent months. The United Nations has designated 2001 as the “International Year of Mobilization against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia & Related Intolerance.” A World Conference Against Racism will be held in South Africa this August. In July, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination will discuss the Hong Kong government’s report on the subject, along with reports on mainland China and Macau. Several UN committees and officials, including Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have urged the Hong Kong government to fulfill its clear international obligations to legislate against racial discrimination.

The climate is at last right to raise the level of debate and discussion about racial discrimination in Hong Kong. Hopefully, as more people become aware of the seriousness of racial discrimination in Hong Kong society and the harmful effects it has, the push for legislation will be successful at last.

Christine Loh is the CEO of Civic Exchange, a newly established non-profit public policy think-tank in Hong Kong, and Kelley Loper is a researcher with the group.

To contact HARD, e-mail: HARDcomment@yahoo.com.hk

 

 

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