Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

China should beware the dangers of race-based nationalism

Philip Bowring says the rules of citizenship in Hong Kong that favour ethnic Chinese and which are particularly unfair to its foreign workers reflect a prejudice that is unworthy of China, given its past suffering at the hands of imperialist powers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 December, 2017, 11:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 December, 2017, 6:40pm

It is fine to regard independence talk in Hong Kong as silly and counterproductive. But one of the roots of this aberration lies in the lack of any fixed notion of what defines a Hongkonger.

This is not a theoretical puzzle, it goes to the heart of whether and how a Hongkonger has an official, fixed identity. This issue most often surfaces in sports: who is and is not allowed to represent Hong Kong at international events. The practice is clearly very mixed, with each sport having its own rules, whether related to nationality, ethnic origin, place of birth or duration of residence.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) requires participants to hold a Hong Kong SAR passport, which is supposed to define citizenship. But this is nonsense, because a so-called Hong Kong passport is simply a Chinese passport issued in Hong Kong and hence unavailable to non-Chinese permanent residents of the special administrative region. The local Olympic committee is deemed a “national” committee, though it is treason to call Hong Kong a nation! One could well ask why Chinese citizens can represent three territories under one national anthem. (In contrast, Great Britain has one territory so England, Scotland and Wales have to be combined.)

But worse, from a non-Chinese Hongkonger’s viewpoint, is the hypocrisy that prevails. Chinese are not supposed to have two nationalities but, in practice, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong and elsewhere, such as Southeast Asia, do so. Likewise, mainlanders can easily acquire Hong Kong passports. Meanwhile, Hong Kong-born or long-resident non-Chinese are barred.

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The situation makes yet more nonsense of Hong Kong’s claims to be an international city, whose representatives are defined by permanent residence. But do not expect anything to change, as the local Olympic committee is a quasi-feudal institution, with Kenneth Fok Kai-kong as vice-president under his father Timothy Fok Tsun-ting, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, whose own father, the late patriotic businessman Henry Fok Ying-tung, was an early promoter of sports in Hong Kong.

For Hong Kong, immigration is almost entirely from the mainland

The implications go well beyond top-level sports’ representation. There are cries for recruitment of yet more foreign domestic helpers, already 9 per cent of the workforce, to care for our ageing population. Other rich, ageing economies in Europe and Canada do indeed import labour for this purpose. But generally this comes under the heading “immigration”. Those who come are, in time, allowed to become permanent residents and eventually citizens. But for Hong Kong, immigration is almost entirely from the mainland. Foreign domestic workers lack the rights of locals and have no possibility of becoming permanent residents. That similar situations exist in Singapore and the Gulf states is no excuse. It is past time that Hong Kong people stopped complaining about discrimination against Chinese elsewhere and look at how they treat foreign workers.

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These workers are in a worse position than the Chinese indentured labourers from Fujian and Guangdong who went to Malaya, Indonesia, Peru and elsewhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though most returned home, there were few barriers to remaining, which explains the size of the ethnic-Chinese populations in Southeast Asia.

Does China not realise that its Southeast Asian neighbours suffered far longer from imperialism than China?

Which takes us to another point that should be remembered at a time when China cannot stop reminding the world of past humiliations inflicted by Western powers, Russia and Japan, to the point where it seems to want to avenge these with its own version of imperialism. Does China not realise that its Southeast Asian neighbours suffered far longer from imperialism than China? The successful trading states in the region were gradually snuffed out by Western arms and commerce. In the foreign wake came impoverished Chinese migrants who worked on the foreigners’ mines and plantations or found opportunity in its rapidly growing economies.

The degree of integration of the descendants of these migrants now varies widely between, say, Thailand and Malaysia. In the latter, it has been held back by rising Islamist identity, lingering Chinese chauvinism and a race-based political system. But no one should doubt the lingering resentment that many indigenous people in the region feel for immigration, over which they had no control.

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Which brings us finally to the issue of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state. They have been in the region for several generations, at least dating back to 1826 when the British took control of a state which had been independent until it was invaded by Burma in 1784. For strategic reasons, Beijing now appears to be giving tacit support to the Myanmar government’s refusal to grant citizenship to this group, which has become a de facto pretext for the army driving tens of thousands into refugee camps in Bangladesh.

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China should know better. If migration 150 years ago must be reversed to accord with notions of ethnic purity, what is the future for Chinese in, for example, Malaysia?

Defining people on the basis of ethnicity is dangerous, leads to equal and opposite reactions and to the kind of race-based nationalism which gave the world Germany and Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. IOC, please note.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator