Ethnicity has no place in the public sphere

Philip Bowring says a fixation on ethnicity in politics, as seen in some of the media attention on the recent UK election, undermines the principle of equality in citizenship

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 8:01pm

A focus on ethnicity can be troubling, whether used by big powers to create mythologies of their past or their "manifest destinies", or in seemingly inconsequential matters. Chinese culture has a particularly long history of viewing its people as a unique genetic entity which transcends the state. This is not a problem when China is inward-looking.

A small matter which may reveal a lot was the attention given to various "Chinese" who stood in the recent UK election. The Post Magazine devoted six pages to them, albeit that most did not speak Chinese or have more than vague connections to China, mostly via Southeast Asia, and two were only part Chinese at most. The one who did not fall for this ethnic focus was the one successful candidate, Alan Mak, who easily won a safe Conservative seat. He very properly expressed no interest in being billed as the "first Chinese in the UK parliament".

He said: "Ethnicity and heritage should be no part in this election. I think those groups - Chinese for Labour and so on - are putting too much emphasis on ethnicity." This was not the response the reporter seeking his ethnicity fix wanted. UK-born Mak went on to enrage ethnically fixated Hongkongers by saying: "And I certainly have no interest in what people in Hong Kong or China think of me, because I am not representing them. I am representing the people of Havant." This was deemed "swagger" by the reporter and Mak was denounced in the Hong Kong blogosphere for somehow being disloyal to his ancestry.

The racism in the criticism of Mak was transparent.

If people of Chinese, Greek, Indian, Ghanaian or whatever ancestry are citizens of the UK, Indonesia, Canada or wherever, it is entirely up to them whether they wish to retain an interest in their ancestors' language, religion and the like. It is a personal matter. Ethnicity in politics is dangerous and should be avoided if at all possible. Those who reject a definition of being this or that minority should be lauded, not derided.

For ethnic politics at its worst, just look at Malaysia, where the ethnic divide is entrenched at every level, in this case with the Malays mostly to blame but with Chinese insistence on cultural separatism being a contributory factor.

The fixation on ethnicity is a reminder of how ethnic Chinese groups in Southeast Asia sometimes have to look at their own behaviour before complaining about discrimination against them. Even in the relatively well-integrated Philippines, the Chinese business community insists on having its own chamber of commerce, as though ethnicity needs a place in business promotion. It simply creates antagonism, particularly when these particular businesses are seen to be already the most powerful in the country. National chambers of commerce, such as the American chamber, are a different matter as they represent business interests of resident foreigners.

Or take Indonesia, where much of the community of Chinese origin is well integrated but where several of the newer rich who prospered with cosy deals during the Suharto era then debunked to Singapore and defrauded the banks of tens of billions of dollars.

Nor is Hong Kong exempt from these issues. The education and employment problems of Asian ethnic minorities here are well known. But how about some attention to sports, where for the Olympics, football and many other sports, you have to have a Hong Kong passport to be part of the Hong Kong team? Hong Kong and Macau can have separate Olympic representation while Scotland and Wales, say, must be part of Great Britain.

Yet, a Hong Kong passport is a form of Chinese passport, and Chinese citizens are not supposed to have two passports - even though hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers who are ethnic Chinese do. Meanwhile, non-Chinese are excluded from representing the territory.

The Hong Kong government buys into this discrimination because of its obsession with ethnicity and the three stars on the ID card. This contradicts the genuine (so far at least) principle of equality enshrined in the permanent identity card, giving voting and legal rights to all. If Hong Kong wants to be Asia's "world city" and Hong Kong's separate identity at international sporting events be justified, it must fight for the rights of all permanent residents to represent it, and not allow ethnic Chinese to claim such rights without being here for seven years.

And while on the subject of sport, the usual vested interests are demanding go-ahead for the HK$20 billion-plus stadium and sports complex at Kai Tak so Hong Kong can host bigger events - even though the existing Hong Kong Stadium is full only once a year. This sounds much like the argument for the cruise terminal.

How much better it would be if this effort and money were directed to many smaller sporting facilities, particularly for schools. Data showing how unfit Hong Kong youngsters are even compared with the UK, where obesity is rife, should be a major concern. As, too, should be the poor air quality which can make running more a danger than a benefit. Good government is about investing in the future of our citizens, of all ethnicities.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator