Anti-mainlander protest a reminder of the limits of free speech

Cliff Buddle says the abhorrent 'anti-locust' protest should serve as a reminder to Hong Kong of the limits to our cherished freedoms

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 February, 2014, 4:08am

The harassment of mainland tourists during a protest in Kowloon this month has been widely condemned - and rightly so. Demonstrators in what was styled as an "anti-locust" march targeted shoppers in Tsim Sha Tsui, shouting insults and chanting slogans such as: "Go back to China." It is not surprising there were scuffles.

Such conduct is abhorrent and an affront to our generally tolerant and law-abiding society.

The subsequent soul-searching has led the Equal Opportunities Commission to suggest Hong Kong's race-hate laws might need to be extended to cover mainlanders. That, surely, should have been done when the law was enacted in 2008.

Only about 100 people were involved in the march. But tensions have been mounting as Hong Kong struggles to adapt to the increasing number of mainlanders coming here.

Protests against mainland parallel-goods traders in Sheung Shui led to scuffles last year. And, in 2012, a full-page newspaper advertisement and online video depicted mainlanders as locusts. The reference to locusts is sometimes used in a light-hearted way. But it is no laughing matter. It has echoes of the use of the word "cockroach" to dehumanise Tutsi people during the Rwandan genocide.

Officials in Hong Kong and on the mainland have been quick to condemn the protest. Now, it seems, we will have a belated attempt to extend racial discrimination laws to mainlanders.

Any move to bring in laws that restrict freedom of expression must be treated with caution. Such laws, even if enacted with good intentions, often end up being abused by governments to suppress opinions they don't like. But Hong Kong is required to have race hate laws by the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Race Discrimination Ordinance makes it an offence to vilify people on the grounds of race. But it does not appear to cover attacks on mainlanders by Chinese citizens in Hong Kong, as they are of the same race and nationality.

The government resisted calls to bring mainlanders within the scope of the legislation when it was being drafted. This was not possible, officials argued, because Hong Kong people and mainlanders are of the same "racial stock". No doubt, it was considered politically incorrect at the time to suggest there were differences between Hong Kong people and their compatriots from the mainland.

Then, the focus was on newly arrived immigrants from the mainland, not tourists. The government's position seemed at odds with its report to the UN in 2000 that new arrivals from the mainland were a "distinctive group within the ethnic minority".

Whatever the position with race hate laws, our existing public order and criminal offences are probably sufficient to deal with the sort of unruly behaviour that occurred during the protest. The benefit of extending the race discrimination laws to cover mainlanders would be the message it sends.

In the meantime, we should remember how much we cherish our freedom to protest and express our opinions. It is a freedom we must be vigilant to protect - but also one that should not be abused.

Cliff Buddle is the Post's editor, special projects