Serious omissions, in any language

Kelley Loper

After a long delay, the government finally tabled a Race Discrimination Bill in the Legislative Council on Wednesday. If it becomes law, the new Race Discrimination Ordinance would prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, colour, descent, and national and ethnic origin. While a step in the right direction, the bill contains serious weaknesses that could limit its effectiveness in addressing racial inequalities in Hong Kong.

Two controversial provisions involve language. Section 58 provides that the use of - or failure to use - any language would not be considered racial discrimination, and Section 26(2) states that schools would not be required to make special arrangements related to the medium of instruction. These exemptions ignore the possibility that language policy could result in discrimination against certain ethnic groups, and may not conform to Hong Kong's international human rights commitments to prohibit racial discrimination.

The race bill is intended to implement the UN Convention against all Forms of Racial Discrimination, which has applied to Hong Kong since 1969. The committee that enforces this convention recognises the connection between racial discrimination and language. It has reminded states that they must ensure adequate opportunities for minority communities to learn the majority language. Indeed, lack of language education could be used as a tool to exclude, prevent integration and limit opportunities for racial and ethnic groups.

Ineffective language policies have had a negative impact on ethnic minority communities in Hong Kong. Many families who cannot afford to send their children to international schools face serious difficulties accessing education and ensuring that their children succeed in the education system. Many of these children are at a disadvantage because they lack opportunities to gain Chinese language skills. They must either attend an English-medium school with few Chinese language classes, or enrol in a Chinese-medium school - where they may not be able to keep up with their Chinese classmates without extra language-learning support.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some ethnic minority children attending Chinese-medium primary schools learn only a few hundred Chinese characters while their Chinese classmates learn thousands. Without language skills, these children will face a host of obstacles limiting their equal opportunity to access higher education and employment, and ability to integrate into the community.

The government acknowledged in its report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2003 that language 'is the core difficulty from which all others flow', and claims it is addressing these problems through policy initiatives. But the approach so far has been piecemeal and inadequate. Only legal obligations can create effective policy change in the face of bureaucratic inaction.


In addition, ensuring basic human rights - including the rights to equality and to education without discrimination - for everyone in Hong Kong requires legal measures, and should not be subject to the whims of administrative decision-making.

Other jurisdictions began addressing language-related racial discrimination much earlier. For example, in 1974 the US Supreme Court found that schools in San Francisco had violated the Civil Rights Act by failing to provide sufficient supplementary instruction in English for Chinese students with limited English abilities. As a result, the students were disadvantaged in every other aspect of education.

The court observed that 'those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experiences wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful'. The same is true for many ethnic minority children in Hong Kong today.

This city understands the benefits of cultural diversity and the importance of education. But the language exemptions in the race bill appear defensive, and signal unwillingness on the part of the government to subject its own policies to legal scrutiny on human rights grounds. The failure to address the cycle of poverty facing some ethnic minority communities has legal, economic and moral implications.


An effective race ordinance could help break that cycle by ensuring a right to non-discrimination for all ethnic groups in Hong Kong. It could also serve a symbolic function, demonstrating that Hong Kong cares about fostering a multicultural, inclusive society.

Kelley Loper is a research assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong