Chinese tourists

Hong Kong must have zero tolerance for anti-mainlander hate campaigns

John Young says there is no place in Hong Kong for the racial hatred seen during anti-mainlander protests, and we must amend our laws now to offer better protection or risk souring relations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 11:28am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 2:58am

Last month's protests against mainland visitors in Tsim Sha Tsui cast a shadow over Hong Kong's reputation as a world city and international tourist destination. Anti-mainland protesters targeted Chinese visitors in an extraordinary display of hatred and contempt opposite the shops on Canton Road.

The protesters derided the mainland visitors as Shina - a derogatory term akin to "Chink" that originated from Japanese use during the second world war. Protesters reviled the visitors as "locusts", likening their presence in Hong Kong to an insect plague. In a media-savvy touch, the protesters symbolically "exterminated" the visitors by spraying them with bottles labelled "locust insecticide". The "insecticide" later proved to be water but the toxic message was clear.

Eventually, some of the protesters resorted to pushing and shoving visitors outside the shops. Several shops closed their doors for fear of damage by the protesters, forcing many of the tourists to seek safety in the shops that remained open. None of this was brought on by anything any individual mainland visitor had said or done that day.

Tourism is an essential component of Hong Kong's economy. Last year, the city played host to more than 50 million tourists, over 70 per cent of whom came from the mainland. But the loss of tourist dollars is not the greatest danger presented by the wave of anti-mainland protests. The real danger is the polarisation of Hong Kong society and the transformation of the cultural and political dialogue between Hong Kong and the mainland from one of co-operation, competition and accommodation to one of contempt, conflict and annihilation.

Hong Kong-mainland relations are complex. Expanded tourism from the mainland was instrumental in lifting Hong Kong's economy out of the doldrums following the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic but many of the jobs created are in relatively low-paying retail and service areas. There is also the question of tourism's impact on commercial rents and the loss of neighbourhood businesses.

The divisive cultural environment makes rational discussion of these issues unlikely, and encourages a bigoted response to mainland visitors. The danger posed by these self-appointed guardians of "Hong Kong identity" is their ability to influence the tone of discussion of issues relating to mainland-Hong Kong relations, to shift the agenda from a discussion of accommodation and benefit to one of zero-sum cultural chauvinism and hatred.

Hate can transform societies. Civilised peoples commit otherwise unimaginable cruelties under its spell. Awareness of the danger posed by racial and religious hatred has led many nations to enact laws against "hate crimes" and "hate speech".

Hate crimes are criminal acts against an individual or group of individuals because of their race, colour, religion, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability. In the US, hate crime statutes exist in both federal law and at state level. For example, California's criminal code prohibits interfering with another person's exercise of civil rights because of that person's national origin.

The exercise of civil rights includes such ordinary activities as walking on a public street and shopping. Thus, protesters' intimidation of mainland tourists would arguably be a crime had it taken place in California, and the perpetrators could be fined US$5,000 or jailed for up to a year.

Hong Kong prides itself as a city based on the rule of law and it makes sense to look to the law as an avenue for dealing with the rising tide of anti-mainland hatred and violence.

The closest thing that Hong Kong has to hate crime laws are the provisions of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Race Discrimination Ordinance.

The ordinance prohibits racial "vilification" and "harassment". Vilification is defined as activity "to incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, another person or members of a class of persons on the ground of the race of the person or members of the class of persons", while harassment is defined as engaging "in unwelcome conduct … in circumstances in which a reasonable person … would have anticipated that the other person would be offended, humiliated or intimidated by that conduct".

The ordinance defines "race" as "the race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin of the person". The protesters vilified and harassed visitors from the mainland when they subjected them to severe ridicule and contempt and incited hatred against the mainland "locusts" based solely upon their national origin.

The ordinance thus presents itself as an ideal means for protecting mainland visitors and residents from hate attacks, but for the fact that the attackers and victims legally share the same Chinese nationality. The ordinance contains no language explicitly requiring the perpetrator of discriminatory actions to be of a different race than the victims of the action, but some legal observers have expressed the view that its protections do not apply to discrimination against a national group by people of the same nationality.

During the drafting and adoption of the ordinance, the Home Affairs Bureau chose not to include "new arrivals" from the mainland within the groups explicitly covered in the law.

It is unclear if this omission would prohibit the Equal Opportunities Commission from taking action against the Tsim Sha Tsui protesters for harassment and vilification. However, the commission's chairman, Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, said recently it was possible to amend race hate laws to cover discrimination against members of the same ethnic group.

Hong Kong must say no to the dissemination of hatred and bigotry. The anti-mainland protesters' localism and intolerance are reminiscent of the hate campaigns that preceded the massacre of half a million Chinese in Indonesia in the 1960s or, indeed, of the rhetoric of hate and blame that dominated 1930s Germany. This rhetoric has no place in modern-day Hong Kong.

This is not to deny that contentious issues exist surrounding Hong Kong's relationship with the mainland. But it is precisely because these questions require intelligent and open debate that Hong Kong's political environment must continue to be based on the free and intelligent exchange of ideas rather than becoming mired in an environment tainted by hatred, bigotry and ignorance.

The government should immediately take action to extend the Race Discrimination Ordinance's protections to Chinese from the mainland. Hong Kong's survival as a place of tolerance and diversity may well depend on it.

John Young, a civil rights attorney, is the former associate director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at University of Hong Kong