It was the promise of things to come that poured cold water all over the anti-racism movement in Hong Kong. In the early years of this decade, a strong campaign for anti-racial discrimination legislation - fuelled by intense anger and solidarity among civil society groups - generated more than enough publicity to put the issue firmly on the social agenda.
Then came the promise that the agitation would finally bear fruit. Three years and four months ago, the government announced that it would legislate against racial discrimination after years of foot-dragging, finally fulfilling its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which has applied to Hong Kong since 1969.
The anger subsided, the solidarity between campaign groups weakened and the level of publicity consequently eased. There was a sense of anticipation as supporters of the legislation waited for change. In the interim, ethnic minority representatives and anti-racism activists attended regular meetings with senior government officials on issues that concerned them. The then-deputy secretary for home affairs Stephen Fisher chaired the meetings, which would run for several hours.
Two years ago, the Home Affairs Bureau issued a consultation paper setting out its proposals on the law. Since then, advocates have been given one date after another for when the bill would be introduced to the Legislative Council. It's common knowledge among sources in government and non-governmental spheres that a number of departments and bureaus have been hostile to the law.
Frustration among advocates has been simmering. It now appears that a campaign to introduce anti-discrimination laws is gathering pace again.
Fermi Wong Wai-fun, one of the staunchest advocates of such laws in Hong Kong, and head of Hong Kong Unison, said she felt that the political will to protect ethnic minorities' interests had weakened during the past year or two. Ms Wong left Hong Kong for a year in mid-2004 because of family commitments, thinking she had left behind an administration that understood and was sympathetic towards issues concerning minorities.
She was in for a shock when she returned. 'Before I left I had some progress with the [Education and Manpower Bureau] and we came to some compromises, but now it seems to have gotten worse,' she said. 'We had so many promises, but no progress.'
Vandana Rajwani, of Hong Kong Against Race Discrimination (Hard), said she was disappointed, frustrated and angry. 'With all the efforts we had put in to lobby for this law, we had assumed the government would fulfil their commitment and push through a bill that reflected the needs of Hong Kong,' she said.
'I certainly didn't expect them to put it on the back burner and ignore the rights of Hong Kong people and people who visit Hong Kong. We should not have had to work so hard to convince them in the first place to fulfil their international obligations. In this time frame they have been able to push through many other bills and this is a fundamental human-rights issue they have been unable to send through. It makes a mockery of the work we do.'
Ms Rajwani said it was a reflection of the government's lack of commitment to human-rights issues that at this crucial juncture it transferred the man in the administration who was most familiar with the issues. 'Stephen Fisher knew the bill very well and he has been removed at a critical time,' she said. 'He has been nurturing this bill. You don't just abandon people like him and [Principal Assistant Secretary] John Dean and replace them with someone who is not an expert on the issue.'
Ms Rajwani said it appeared that the government was 'stepping away from the issue' and that Mr Fisher had been removed because he was pushing the government departments into compliance with the bill, and 'the government did not like that'.
'The government says it's natural civil service progression, but they have given us reason to be suspicious and to question their commitment to human rights in Hong Kong,' she said.
Ms Rajwani said it was time to start pressuring the government again. Ms Wong echoed the call. A collection of NGOs dealing with minority and race issues held a strategy session last weekend to bring the issue firmly back into public consciousness.
'We have been quiet and separate for too long - we must have solidarity and discuss a concrete action plan,' Ms Wong said. 'We need to keep lobbying Legco members and keep them warm ... keep them owning the issue and get them to question the government. Donald Tsang will be delivering his policy address in a few days and we need him to tell us what is happening.'
Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai said his group was gearing up to 'mount something' and warned of what he perceived to be a 'systematic rollback in the human rights position of the government in areas such as racial equality, sexual orientation, establishment of a statutory human rights commission'.
Mr Law cited the 'backtracking' on the establishment of a human rights commission. Mr Fisher had indicated an 'open mind' on the issue on occasion, but in their response to the UN Human Rights Committee this year, officials said there was no need for such a body and effectively ruled it out. 'With the change in personnel in the Home Affairs Bureau, it seems there are also rollbacks in the policy and position on human rights,' Mr Law said. 'We're trying to get some social action going. The government has breached promises to the UN before. We cannot take it for granted a promise to us will be kept.'
International chambers of commerce in Hong Kong are supportive of anti-racial discrimination legislation. At a recent luncheon of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, the guest speaker - the head of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) - was pressed on progress.
Commission head Raymond Tang Yee-bong said he had been told that legislation would be introduced in the next few months and that the EOC was 'anxious' to know when it could begin the difficult work of implementation.
An NGO source, who asked not to be named, said Permanent Secretary for Home Affairs Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had the competence and the know-how to push through any issue she felt strongly about. But the source questioned Mrs Lam's commitment to the legislation, wondering if she would consider it worth the risk of annoying other bureau heads.
A spokeswoman for the Home Affairs Bureau said the bill was in its final stages and would be introduced this year. She declined a request for an interview with Mrs Lam on the issue.
According to government sources, the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB), the Social Welfare Department and the Labour Department are among the most hostile to the proposed law. Ms Rajwani said she had been told of 'farcical examples' of exemptions some officials were asking about.
'They're looking at the bill not to learn how to change their policies to comply with it, but to see how they can be exempted,' she said. 'I've heard from two sources that the Labour Department wanted an exemption because it would be administratively inconvenient to provide job search information in a variety of languages.'
Ms Wong said the EMB had reason to worry, given the lack of support ethnic minority students received, and because of programmes such as the Native English Teacher (NET) scheme, which she said discriminated against local Chinese teachers. The three biggest obstacles within government also reflected the three most crucial areas where minorities needed protection: education, employment and social welfare, she said.
According to Social Welfare Department figures, 12,509 dole recipients come form somewhere other than China. Thirty per cent are Pakistani. 'Every year, about 500 South Asian ethnic minorities take the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, but only about 20 from the four schools with majority ethnic minority students make it to Form Six,' Ms Wong said.
'The Hong Kong education system is very expensive and it's producing failures,' she said. 'How does that happen? If they do not do well at school, they have difficulty finding jobs, particularly since most of them do not have Chinese-language skills. The EMB says they can take the Chinese HKCEE exams, but even 30 per cent of ethnic Chinese fail every year. How do you expect minorities to pass with no support?
'Discrimination will be reflected in poverty, drug abuse, social crimes and withdrawal,' Ms Wong said. 'We are only going to pay higher social costs if we do not meet the needs of our ethnic minorities who are also permanent residents of Hong Kong and have had their needs ignored for generations.'
But Ms Rajwani said it was important to note that racial discrimination was not just a 'minority issue'. 'Chinese people in Hong Kong are denied jobs all the time because of their race. This is a right that affects every single person.'