• Thu
  • Jul 31, 2014
  • Updated: 6:05pm
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

BIO

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

TigerJ
Even in Southeast Asia, over 80% of those who are SOMEBODY have Han genes somewhere in their systems.
guy.pant
Bowring is out of touch by not realizing that lighter skin is coveted throughout all of Asia (including the Philippines, Vietnam, etc) and much of the world, but it doesn't make one racist unless the country practices a caste or apartheid system that discriminates on such basis. To cast the Chinese now as racist as the British once were makes for a feel good story of the Commonwealth. Talk of race has zero value is resolving territorial disputes.
CatherineOhlLaw
I wonder why the Chinese have not yet incorporated Chinese-Africans in their national football teams. Despite the fact that there are dozens of thousands of them in China, certainly plenty of trainable talents amongst them, (and a lot of them who would love to play for citizenship I bet). (Go look at the numbers before you answer this) As happens in most Westen European teams today, and thanks for their talent. Maybe then the Chinese team would be in the Cup this month... Ahhhh , but that will never happen, not in my lifetime, those dark guys would be so NOT representative of China !!! Wonder why ? not pale enough, and nothing the French cosmetic industry could do about there...(anyway those are too happily busy with the huge Chinese market that laps up its whitening products). mhhhh, again, wonder why ? enough material here in 3 lines to write up a doctorate thesis on the subject of the "question mark" after the words Chinese racism. Am white, French,married to a Chinese, light yellow, and am familiar with the iceberg under the tip.
guy.pant
Those very same Western European countries whose fans throw bananas and make ape calls at the African players also give away crony citizenships to win a game. May as well suggest Western European national teams employ all talented African players if they are so good and non-racist.
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.
shouken
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!
ianson
Monoculture serves the purposes of the CCP. Throw out the CCP and improvements in tolerance would likely follow.
cal10ten
To ******
HK is declining. It's a matter of time. It's a joke to call HK Asia's world city -- what with the terrible air quality, the smog, the congested roads and streets. Its value and influence are also falling rapidly thanks to the PRC's ''meddling'' and ''interference'' as it builds up Shanghai to enable it to be Paris of the East again. Singapore is a more of a multicultural hub than HIK would ever be. Singapore's economic influence is on the rise as has been recognized by major world and economic powers as well as global bodies like the UN, WTO, IMF and World Bank. Singapore's finance minister chairs an important committee of the IMF. For a small country Singapore punches above its weight economically. HK$?? Oh please. It's such a low value currency. It is even falling behind the yuan. 100 yuan can buy more in HK$ now. See how the value of your HK$ is slowly but surely falling.
anson
China should strive for better relations with its neighbours, not because of any perceived racism but simply to counter the divide and rule tactics currently employed by the US. A small amount of humble pie with Vietnam would allow China greater flexibility to negotiate for equal exploration rights with the Philippines (yes, lets be real this is about what lies under the seabed not the actual sea area). Diffuse the arguments with these two countries and China can face the real enemy - Japan, nominally backed by the US. If China wasn't trying to fight so many fires then they could perhaps even begin to help the Okinawans to free themselves from US/Japanese occupation. That might put the cat amongst the pigeons. As to Chinese racism, its all just part of the new 'great game' of the 21st century.
Yknot
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.

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