Open Hong Kong must not tolerate discrimination against migrants

Peter Kammerer says prejudice against outsiders, particularly the outright hostility against mainland migrants, shames us as a society

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 June, 2015, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 June, 2015, 3:37pm

Newcomers to any society usually have a tough time fitting in. Hong Kong makes it especially difficult for mainlanders. While those from the West are generally welcomed, those from places seen as less sophisticated are looked down upon. Call it snobbery, arrogance or discrimination, but it is not what should be expected of "Asia's world city".

A recent study of 1,038 migrants from the mainland revealed how uncaring we can be. Although Chinese in a city that is 95 per cent of the same ethnicity and mostly able to speak Cantonese, the majority lived as outsiders. The Institute of Education survey showed that nearly 57 per cent perceived daily discrimination, 60 per cent believed Hong Kong people were intolerant towards new immigrants, and 66 per cent thought locals misunderstood and held biases towards them.

As a result, more than nine in 10 had not participated in community activities in the six months before the poll and just 12 per cent felt they were Hongkongers.

There is arguably nothing unusual about such figures for any big city. I don't have statistical comparisons for New York, London or Paris, but know from friends who have lived in these cities that they can be equally inhospitable. Part of it is down to the rush of life, which gives the perception that people are cold. But the best opportunities are also in such places and that leads to higher housing costs, bigger disparities in income and a sense among some that they have reached the top. Hardly surprising, then, that there are those with superior attitudes.

Anyone who makes an effort to fit in will tell otherwise, of course. But that may not be so easy when a community is against you. The hostility that mainland boy Siu Yau-wai has encountered since his grandmother revealed how he had been living illegally in hiding for nine years shows how rabid some of us can get. Even though he had been brought here aged three and this was the only home he had known, protesters railed at a school's offer of an entrance test. A voluntary decision for his return to the mainland was met with cries of victory.

Domestic helpers are daily looked down upon and those from the subcontinent are often treated less than equally. An inability to adequately communicate also keeps some groups apart; it is why many foreigners prefer their own kind. In such circumstances, it is easy to claim that integration is difficult.

Our government has a role: it can improve job prospects and assure education. Individuals and families also have to make an effort to avoid becoming isolated by getting involved in communities. Complaining about not knowing who neighbours are is of little use if no effort is made to even say "good morning". But the most effort has to be made by Hongkongers.

Refugees and migrants built Hong Kong. They came in search of a better life. It is shameful that they and their offspring should deny the same for others - particularly those from the same country.

In a fast-ageing society like ours, the doors should be open wide. Daniel Bell, a philosophy professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University, gave a good reason why, pointing to the Confucian saying that exemplary people should value harmony over uniformity.

"Harmony here means respect for, if not celebration of, diversity in the context of peaceful order," the author of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, told me. "New migrants that promise to enrich social life should be welcomed, so long as social order can be maintained."

It is a philosophy all in Hong Kong should live by.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post