Racist ideas will set back Chinese diplomacy
Philip Bowring says a lack of sufficient respect for the non-Chinese majorities in Southeast Asia underlies Beijing's fractious relations in the region
Next month, Hong Kong begins free trade negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But is "Asia's world city" ready to treat as equals its 600 million neighbours to the south?
Hong Kong should and can be a beacon of pan-Asian if not pan-global identity, shunning ethnic divisions, chauvinist mentality and racial stereotypes. But recent evidence suggests there is much to be done, work which may be difficult in the face of demands to be "patriotic", which means "my country, right or wrong".
Relations with Asean nations, which in both colonial and post-colonial times have been a key to Hong Kong's commercial and financial role, are not going to be easy as long as China treads so hard on the toes of our two nearest neighbours, Vietnam and the Philippines, and has claims on the seas off Malaysia and Indonesia. So Hong Kong should at least be making an effort to remove any other areas of friction between itself and its non-Chinese neighbours.
At best, education officials in Hong Kong are clueless when textbooks that are supposed to promote racial harmony denote brown-skinned Asians as doing menial jobs such as domestic help and construction work. That is what so many in Hong Kong do - because they are only allowed in on that basis and paid wages lower than locals doing similar jobs. Likewise, white people are depicted as professionals wearing suits. Such stereotypes feed natural prejudices against foreigners.
These authors need reminding that it was not so long ago that rich families in the Philippines imported domestic helpers from Fujian , and that Chinese labour was found to be the cheapest almost the whole world over, resulting in Chinese finding themselves volunteering to be shipped to work in appalling conditions from Peru to Mauritius. Or that most construction workers in Britain, for example, are and always have been white.
More broadly, China needs to understand that much of its obsession with Han genes and identity is based on misconceptions. We are told by none other than Xi Jinping that Han people do not have "the invasion gene". But who are these Han anyway? Genetically, a large percentage of the inhabitants of southern China, descendants of the various Yue peoples who were absorbed into the Chinese empire, are genetically closer to many Southeast Asians - Vietnamese and Thai in particular - than to people from the original Han heartland in northern China.
Han is more a cultural than a genetic concept, but by fixating on skin colour, the textbook implies the superiority of the paler races, which easily translates into political assumptions - such as China's right to the whole South China Sea even though the coastline mostly belongs to other peoples.
Likewise, the Hong Kong government has difficulty dealing with these countries - even though many elites, as in the case of President Benigno Aquino, are of part-Chinese descent. The ridiculous sanctions against the Philippines are now behind us - but not forgotten by Filipinos.
And Hong Kong officials seem uncomfortable dealing with non-Chinese in the region. Thus Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor recently spent three days in Malaysia. It included courtesy calls on the prime minister and other key officials, but her main event was a June 5 speech on Hong Kong and Asean.
This was at a forum organised by the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia, the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Singapore, and the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute - the latter founded and funded by Malaysian Chinese Jeffrey Cheah and his Sunway property group. In other words, a largely Chinese affair in the Malay heartland, playing into the hands of Malay racists who want to marginalise local Chinese.
That ethnic Chinese groups are prominent in business throughout Asean is no excuse for Lam's adhesion to such an obviously ethnic agenda in a country where Chinese are about a fifth of the population - and an Asean region where they are less than 5 per cent . If Hong Kong wishes to have good relations with its Asean neighbours, it is long past time to treat the non-Chinese majorities - who anyway have control of the politics - with respect. Lam's choice of venue for her speech suggests she took her cue from the schoolbook definitions of race.
These hark back to both the racist notions held by the British in the heyday of empire 100 years ago, and to Chinese views of the genetic as well as cultural inferiority of their neighbours. Addressing these issues is not just a must for Hong Kong but for China as a whole as it claims to seek good relations with Southeast Asia, and the resolution of the problems of Tibet and Xinjiang .
Is China to be, like the Ottoman empire at its peak, an empire where ethnic and religious minorities are largely left alone so long as they accept sovereignty, a minimum level of shared laws, and pay their taxes? Or is Beijing determined to force Han culture down their throats in the hope that sooner or later they will be absorbed? Two thousand years of turbulent history of the region between Chengdu and Tashkent suggests it will be a fruitless struggle.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator