Racism is rife in Hong Kong and the Equal Opportunities Commission is a toothless hamster to tackle it

Yonden Lhatoo says ethnic minorities in the city should unite to help themselves in the face of discrimination.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 8:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 April, 2016, 12:01pm

The top official in charge of fighting racism and discrimination in Hong Kong is on his way out and the government has started an open recruitment exercise to replace him.

In addition to having “a strong commitment to promoting equal opportunities and building an inclusive, barrier-free and harmonious society”, the ideal candidate must possess “strong language and communication skills, including good command of Chinese and English”.

Well, that’s that then. The Chinese-language requirement means you can rule out appointing an ethnic minority candidate to the post of chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission, which could have made all the difference to tackling open racism and discrimination in this town.

Let me make this unequivocally clear: racism is alive and well in Hong Kong. Nothing much has changed since we set up the commission in 1996 to curb bigotry based on sex, disability and family status, and since it began to enforce the 2008 Race Discrimination Ordinance.

A recent example of this was a story the Post published this month, highlighting the ordeal of a Pakistani woman looking to rent a tiny flat in Cheung Sha Wan, as landlords would turn her away because of her skin colour or nationality.

It’s not only housing. From hailing a cab or opening a bank account to getting medical treatment in a public hospital or finding a job, our ethnic minorities – most of whom are poor and underprivileged – face all kinds of discrimination in daily life.

If I had a dollar for every complaint and unpleasant anecdote I’ve heard over the past couple of decades from Africans, South Asians and others living in this city, I’d be a rich man.

When it comes to racism, the only saving grace for Hong Kong is that it remains safe and you won’t get beaten up for the colour of your skin here, unlike in many other developed cities in Europe or North America.

When outgoing commission chairman Dr York Chow Yat-ngok was first appointed to the post in 2013, critics questioned his impartiality because of his long track record of toeing the government line in public service, but to his credit, it’s the other way round now, with rights activists demanding a second term for him. Chow has done more than was expected of him, ruffling conservative feathers among pro-family and religious groups by speaking out for minorities and even taking part in a gay pride parade, which is why it’s likely he’s being forced out.

But let’s face it: at the end of the day, the watchdog he’s been running is essentially a toothless hamster – not even a tiger, as that would still suggest some vestiges of power.

Perhaps it’s time for our ethnic minorities to do something about it themselves, instead of letting their slow slide into ghettoised alienation and resentment reach a point of no return.

To begin with, there are hundreds of thousands of them, which makes them a formidable voting bloc that could easily turn the tide for any political party.

It’s very telling that 60 seats are reserved for the agriculture and fisheries sector in the election committee that will pick Hong Kong’s next leader, even though it accounts for just 0.1 percent of this city’s economy. Not a single seat for an ethnic minority representative in the Legislative Council either, even though functional constituencies for professional and special interest groups have given everyone else and their mum a voice.

Imagine all of Hong Kong’s non-Chinese population as a united force ahead of the Legislative Council election next year, telling politicians: “Do something for us, protect our interests, pressure the government to address our grievances, and we’ll vote for you.”

I suggested this recently to one of the leaders of Hong Kong’s Nepalese community. His reply was not encouraging: “Brother, do you know how many different, rival Nepalese associations alone we have in Hong Kong? Try asking them to unite, then talk to me about bringing Indians, Filipinos and others together.”

Maybe I’m just a wishful thinker.