Monday, August 27, 2012

Race Bias and Hong Kong

The territory risks losing some of its international flavor because of racism

For the first time since the handover 15 years ago, Hong Kong has appointed a non-ethnic Chinese woman to the police force. That the recruitment of Heina Rizwan Mohammad has been so newsworthy is evidence of just how biased Hong Kong officialdom is against the tens of thousands of ethnic minority people who were born in the territory and are qualified to fill posts in the police and other disciplined services.

Actual practices in Hong Kong – with Asians being the main sufferers – make a mockery of the claim to be “Asia’s World City.” They could lead before long to the marginalization of Hong Kong as an international city. Its attempts to make itself “more Chinese” merely point up the fact that it cannot compete with Shanghai as China’s major commercial and international hub, meanwhile losing some of the international flavor which has made in attractive for decades to Southeast Asians in particular but also south Asians who in colonial times had been widely employed in government.

Hong Kong is also about to have a course of “National Education” foisted on its schools. There is strong public opposition to this plan, which many see as a means of glorifying the Communist Party in particular as well as giving a more “patriotic” flavor to the teaching of history and current affairs in particular. What the minorities are supposed to make of the Chinese nationalism-centric curriculum and textbooks being proposed for this exercise is not explained.

Hong Kong is part of China and 90 percent of its residents are ethnically Chinese. But to deny full participation of the minorities – the largest ones being of Indian, Pakistani and Nepali descent – is to deny its past and what should be its future as the most multi-racial part of China.

Official and media glorification of the local activists who landed on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and almost continuous official vilification of the Philippines also do no good to a city which thrives on international commerce and presents itself as an Asian meeting place. Although it is not supposed to dabble in foreign affairs, Hong Kong’s leaders seem incapable of resisting the temptation to make patriotic gestures and act as though the city’s chief executive was the equal of the Philippine president.

Nor is ethnocentrism confined to officialdom and would-be populist politicians. The “Asian studies” departments of the universities are largely focused on China, not the rest of Asia – the exception being City University which otherwise ranks low in the university pecking order but is strong in southeast Asian studies.

Just how unwanted non-Chinese can be made to feel is currently being illustrated by the campaign for the Legislative Council elections on September 9. The pitch of one candidate for the Kowloon West constituency is to demand that the territory’s 300,000 domestic helpers be deprived of days off on statutory holidays which are Chinese festivals because of the inconvenience to their employers. The candidate, running as an independent, was formerly director of Hong Kong’s richest charity, the Po Leung Kuk! Kowloon West has a large non-Chinese population, mostly of south Asian origin, but as some candidates only send electoral material in Chinese not English, also an official language.

The helpers are almost all from Southeast Asia – mainly Indonesia and the Philippines – and are widely exploited because of the failure of officials to enforce laws on wages and living conditions. The growth in the number of helpers relative to the total population indicates how reliant the society has become on them as a source of cheap labor. But by the same token it has encouraged lower middle income households to employ “inferior” people whom they can kick around. (Only brown Asians qualify as helpers).

These attitudes in turn aggravate the problems of the locally-born brown Asians almost regardless of their fluency in Cantonese or general level of education.

The race basis on Hong Kong official identity cards predates the handover. It was first enshrined in a British policy of putting three stars on the permanent identity cards of those deemed Chinese citizens by virtue of their ethnicity rather than place of birth. Now, in theory non-ethnic-Chinese can get Chinese (Hong Kong) passports. But it is difficult – unless you happen to be a high-profile person. To succeed, applicants must also in advance give up any other nationality or right of abode. That may seem reasonable – except that the same principles are never applied to the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents who also own the passport or right of abode in the likes of Canada, Australia, the US and Malaysia.

Hong Kong now has a law against overt racial discrimination, and an Equal Opportunities Commission which is supposed to police it. The record of enforcement is weak and would be weaker still but for a local NGO, Unison, which has been effective in drawing attention to some cases – including that in Kowloon West. Indeed there are grounds for some optimism that the position of minorities will improve. Just as there has been reaction against attempts to impose nationalistic ideas and to forced integration with the mainland, so there is also a growing recognition that the minorities are very much part of Hong Kong’s separate and special identity. It is also one to which Beijing cannot publicly object – however distasteful it finds letting brown and white skins take part in government.

Even the recent Olympic games provided a fine example of official racism at work. Although Hong Kong is allowed separate representation at the games, only Chinese passport-holders needed apply. So the Hong Kong team had some relatively recent arrivals from the mainland but not a single non-ethnic Chinese face despite some being eminently qualified.

Hong Kong has since been witness to high-profile visits by China team medal winners in the name of nationalism even though some of these competed against Hong Kong’s own athletes. Given that the International Olympic Committee cares far more about money than the non-nationalistic, non-racists ethics it is supposed to promote none of this may be surprising. However this particular form of apartheid does have the IOC stamp of approval as well as that of Hong Kong officialdom. Asia Sentinel

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