• Sun
  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 3:30pm
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 3:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 3:55am

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


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

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


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This article is now closed to comments

Very recently a residential building in Yau Ma Tei banned domestic helpers from its clubhouse- a blaring example of racist attitudes towards Southeast Asians here in Hong Kong TODAY. Exactly what Mr Bowring is saying. Sad but true.
He makes a fair bit of sense but sadly it is not what you want to hear. The fact is that China and HK see themselves are superior to the majorities in most of the ASEAN nations, as is readily apparent from the pages of this news beacon. That said HK has a choice to be distinct from the racist regime in Beijing and try to engage as equals with ASEAN or it can continue its slow ride down into obscurity as the 6th largest city in China. Asia's World City is a joke to anyone who travels in Asia. HK is China's world city, but is losing that too. Look at multicultural hubs like Singapore or Bangkok to get an idea of what Asia is like. Even Jakarta and Manila show a more multicultural and tolerant society than HK. The same has been manifest from Chinese peradventures in Africa and the Chinese treatment of the Africans. Your racist nation is founded on a myth that you are somehow better than other nations or peoples. You are not. And for the record, the Herald Trib did not go belly up. It is available every day.. What did happen is that it became the International edition of the New York Times, an event that occurred several years ago when the Washington Post pulled out because they disagreed with the Times' editorial slant. Then again, perhaps it is not available in Mainland China so you really would not know. Have a nice day.
M Miyagi
Philip Bowring is writing nonsense again in his desperate attempts to malign the Chinese. When it comes to racists views nobody can beat the Japanese or the Anglos.
Monoculture serves the purposes of the CCP. Throw out the CCP and improvements in tolerance would likely follow.
Jonathan Smith
Philip Bowring's weird views gets stranger and stranger. He can't distinguish between facts and fictions. No wonder the International Herald Tribune and the Far Eastern Economic Review went belly up. Readers wouldn't want to pay to read nonsense.
Well this is probably not a relevant/valid counterargument to what the author is talking about... Not the proper way to argue.
Again, you should stick with the People's Daily so you would only hear good old fashioned Communist Chinese propaganda. As far as racism, few nations can rival your masters and that is felt throughout SE Asia. Perhaps if you got out of China and traveled, you might know that. Then again, we have seen that you all cannot seemingly negotiate an airport without having a woman holding a pennant on a stick to lead you. Master race, ha.
Good article! Philip Bowring must be credited for making a strong and provocative argument against the perceived aggressive expansion of Pax Sinica. It is certainly true that the old core Chinese culture in the north eventually expanded to include today's South China. However, I want to point out to him that historically Sinocization is not and cannot be qualitatively different from Americanization and the building of Pax Americana or Pax Britanica, which certainly used force, soft and hard, to achieve their political and economic goals. Can Beijing be said to be forcing Han culture down the throats of Vietnam? Historically speaking, Vietnam was already a considerably sinocized culture, more often than not without outright violence. "Manifest Destiny" is touted as the fulfillment of a civilizing mission. How else do you get an America, a Russia, a China, or even a Vietnam or Phillippines? You may say that the people or peoples within China's jurisdiction are all products of sinocization. But the same thing can be said of every instance of nation building. To hint at China's being an imperial aggressor in its recent endeavors, you must accept that every state is such an aggressor to various people(s) within and without its borders.
------2,000 years of history "between Chengdu and Tashkent" a "fruitless struggle"? Maybe not in the third millennium!
Hong Kong is an a+ city and the third financian center in the world. "Hong Kong is a world city. It is one of the Al­pha+ cities. As Hong Kong ranks the third most important leading international financial centre, after London and New York City, Hong Kong has a major capitalist service economy characterised by low taxation and free trade, and the currency, Hong Kong dollar, is the eighth most traded currency in the world"
Also Hong Kong is above Signapore in world city terms + it isnt fair to compare Hong Kong and Bangkok since Hong Kong is an a+ city and Bangkok is an a- city.
Also where is the proof that Hong Kong is loosing it's place as a world city to Signapore and Bangkok? Cuz i aint finding any.
Also have more respect for Chinese mainland people. China the nation isn't racist.
Most Chinese people don't like the CCP since 2004 the nine commentaries came 168 million CCP member have left (from the ccp kid party, ccp youth league and ccp party)
The Mainlanders have a different idea of China the nation than China the ccp state.
The mainlanders are not the racist brainwashed ccp people you say they are + get your facts straight next time.
There is a big difference from CCP the anti chinese party who illegaly took over China and China the country. CCP and China is different.
I Gandhi
Philip Bowring have proven time and again that whatever Chinese racism there is, it pales in comparison to Anglo racism. Anglo racism and divide and rule in the past contributed to the colonialism and enslavement of the Americans, the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, Africans and Asians. The same racism and divide and rule today continues with the War on Muslims and incitement for war in Asia. It's really funny that such people who have spent their miserable lives instigating for wars and conflicts continue unabashed.




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