It’s A Numbers Game

Will the Hong Kong Racial Discrimination Bill Make a Difference?

Sometimes monumental decisions slip past the public gaze, attracting comment for a while then fading into obscurity. The excuse could well be that we didn’t understand, that events blinded us to reason. But sometimes it’s just because people don’t really care. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passed its ineptly named Racial Discrimination Bill last Thursday, yet the reaction has been muted. Anti-discrimination groups have been critical of the lacklustre attempt at abiding by global standards of decency, but they’re easily ignored. The focus has been on a simple numbers game, and minorities are always set up to lose.

Freedom from racism is a human right long ignored in Hong Kong. Almost 40 years after Britain signed the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, compelling Hong Kong to enact appropriate legislation, the postcolonial result is a mixture of whimsy and whitewash. Crucially, the government has reserved its right to be racist in anything but employment matters. Look under the lid of that particular situation and you’ll see a desire for racial discrimination in immigration policy leap out at you.

Much is said about multicultural Hong Kong, this cosmopolitan ‘World City’, but the government constantly trundles out two time-worn figures – 95% of the populace is Chinese, and only 5% is ‘foreign’, which is a word spoken with gritted teeth hereabouts. The distinction is important because non-Chinese, even long-time ‘foreign’ residents, can never become fully legal citizens.

In other words, civil rights are circumvented in the denial of a human right.

But the infatuation with numbers runs even deeper than that. Non-Chinese are always lumped together as undifferentiated minorities – occasionally under the illusion that they form a coherent “ethnic minority community” – to show that even at their mightiest they can have but little influence. The media commentary that followed the passing of the law last week didn’t focus on how racism deprives people of liberty, and it skipped over the fact that racial discrimination is just plain wrong. Instead it waffled on about a provision in the bill whereby so few non-Chinese speakers could ask for such expensive translations in their own language, in particular situations.

That provision was passed at the legislators’ insistence and against the will, or whim, of Donald Tsang’s populist government. But anyone who has been in Hong Kong for a while will know that after the anti-discrimination ordinance is enacted, there will quickly follow a policy-based ‘interpretation’, shuffled off to all the relevant departments, burying the whole idea.

So we return to the problem – the majority and those minorities. Because the numbers are so uneven, racism thrives here. As is the case the world around, most people will deny it, but Kent Ewing got it right in the Asia Times Online when he labelled casual, almost absent-minded racial discrimination as “Hong Kong’s dirty little secret”. Who can complain? Who of the grand majority will listen? The numbers never add up to cultural, let alone multicultural, change.

Consider one of the exemptions from the law, which you should keep in mind is mainly concerned about eliminating racism in the workplace. A person applying for work as a live-in ‘foreign’ domestic helper can be rejected because she is not of the right ‘race’, because her skin is too dark, or for any other reason that you could care to push under the umbrella of racism. And why is this so? Because the exemption “recognises the freedom of people to chose who may enter their house and live with them”.

More than a little hypocritically, that freedom of choice is thrust at the ‘foreign’ domestic helper who is expected to live with her employer contrary to the freedom of residence provision in Article 13, Part 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Like all rogue states – or statelets as the case may be – Hong Kong can disregard that provision because the Declaration is unsigned. It’s a guideline to decency rather than a part of international law.

As a somewhat feeble rejoinder, the government has pointed out that the helper will be protected from racial discrimination once employed. But the point is somewhat obvious – the deed is already done and someone has not paid for their racism. To turn that around a little, it’s clear that the government sees no need to condemn racism against ‘foreign’ domestic helpers, most of whom are Filipino and Indonesian, if it conflicts with a freedom enjoyed by the racially ‘correct’ majority. There is no moral stricture in play here, no sense that the initial act of rejection could be foul.

The obvious response to an employer who rejects any potential employee in an act of racial discrimination – leaving aside those few jobs that might actually require certain ethnic ‘characteristics’ – is to deprive them of their labour force. Don’t want to employ that Filipino maid because her skin’s too dark, even though she’s suitable? Sure, no worries, but then you can’t hire a maid at all.

Punishment works.

So will the new legislation change much in Hong Kong? No, it’s too narrow and does nothing to condemn racism. And given that things will slide along mainly as they did before, the only difference seen will be in the eyes of the unreconstructed racist.


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