Tensions between Hongkongers and mainland visitors were further exposed yesterday during a fiery debate over proposed changes to anti-discrimination laws. The equal opportunities watchdog was asked whether using the word "locust" to refer to a mainlander would be a punishable offence.
Possible legislation to protect mainlanders and migrants took centre stage as the Equal Opportunities Commission opened its public consultation on the issue.
Although the review covers a broad range of topics - disability, the gender pay gap and benefits for unmarried couples - the biggest concern of more than 100 people at the Central Library yesterday involved the treatment of mainlanders and migrants.
Under current laws mainlanders are not protected against "racial" discrimination, but the commission has suggested expanding the definition.
The suggestion has raised speculation that using insulting words such as "locust" to describe mainlanders could become punishable by law.
"If a Hongkonger shouted 'locust' in the face of a mainlander after seeing him poo, would he be subjected to punishment?" a representative of Local Press, an internet media outlet, asked. "It is a moral right to condemn something wrong."
An organiser of a controversial rally against mainland tourists - which branded itself as "anti-locust" - asked a similar question: "What is a Hong Kong race? Am I discriminating [against] mainlanders? I only want to bring up discussions [about the tourist influx]."
Commission chairman York Chow Yat-ngok said more than 1,000 submissions on the issue had been received. While it was illegal to urinate in public, it was "the behaviour, not the person's background which should be condemned", he said.
The commission's chief legal counsel, Herman Poon Lik-hang, said it was unlikely that shouting abuse on a street would be considered incitement to racial hatred.
The current lack of laws addressing the civic identities of both Hongkongers and mainlanders left both groups unprotected, he said. A recent example was locals complaining about having to pay higher admission fees to the Book Fair than tourists. He said the commission could not take on such cases under current laws.
Another group of about 10 people from Pro Family HK protested against a proposal to widen the definition of marital status to include cohabitation and civil unions - both heterosexual and same sex - for entitlement to employment and health benefits.
Poon said the commission did not have a position on the issue, but had the responsibility to represent minority interests and start public discussions. The consultation is due to end in October.