Second-class citizens

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am

Hongkongers take much pride in the cosmopolitan city we call home, and are especially proud of how this fishing village became the pearl of the Orient. Often described as resilient and hardworking, Hongkongers were credited for all the city's success stories. And naturally, as that modern, free, safe and prosperous haven of the South China Sea, the city has attracted many people, especially from north of our border, in search of better lives and opportunities.

But for many non-natives, Hong Kong is not always the wonderful place we believe it to be. Racial harmony in what the government praises as an international multicultural city only exists when minorities are neatly tucked away in their own communities - marginalised in a society where they are subject to less opportunities and more obstacles when it comes to finding a home, making a living or getting an education.

But the city has only last year legislated against racial discrimination, something it has been obliged to do since 1969 under the international convention to eradicate all forms of racial discrimination. And it has yet to be seen whether that law, which curiously exempts the government from its provisions, will be effective and whether it will have much of an impact in changing the public's perceptions of, and behaviour towards, people of a different race. With outgoing Equal Opportunities Commission chief Raymond Tang Yee-bong's term expiring in less than two months, there is a lot of work for his successor.

And the next EOC head must take special note of the uproar over the government's recent announcement of a new multiple-entry permit to Hong Kong that will soon be granted to single parents from the mainland by mainland authorities. Callers to local radio phone-in programmes were indignant, believing that these single parents are here to take away jobs and public resources. Some went as far as not recognising these children as Hong Kong residents. The discriminative attitude towards mainland immigrants is overt and offensive by any standard.

It is no secret that a large portion of the community harbours ill feelings toward our mainland brethren. The most appalling view is that mainland immigrants are all on government handouts and thus are draining the public purse and taking away what is entitled to Hongkongers. With the influx of mainland women giving birth in the city's hospitals, these sentiments have been echoed in almost all parts of the community.

Never mind that a recent government survey revealed that a lower-than-expected number of mainland parents of Hong Kong-born children plan to have their children live in the city. Never mind that most of the city's ethnic Chinese population are descendants of mainland immigrants themselves and that Hong Kong's prosperity is dependent on the mainland's; the negative stereotyping of mainland immigrants is perfectly legal since they are not covered by the anti-racial-discrimination law.

What place do these attitudes have in this international city? And what does that mean for Hong Kong's so-called 'core values', which include freedom, equality and openness? Do we, as a society, feel that the freedoms we enjoy, the equality we strive for and the fairness we demand are only for some but not others?

One has to wonder, under these circumstances, what some of the public's demands for universal suffrage mean. Does 'universal' mean non-immigrants?

Voting rights is just one, but very important, dimension to democratic development. Perhaps our politicians are so engrossed in voting methods that they fail to realise that full democracy in a place where people are legally ostracised based on their race, culture or place of origin is, in fact, no democracy at all. A healthy democracy requires public support for an open, tolerant and free society, where there are rational deliberations and tolerance for differences. And the values of respecting equality, freedom and the rights of others are as important - if not more so - than putting a tick on an election ballot.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA