Hong Kong’s ethnic minority woes just keep getting worse

Yonden Lhatoo laments the lack of proper policies to help the city’s non-Chinese residents, amid a worsening poverty rate and rapid population growth

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 February, 2018, 5:50pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 February, 2018, 11:29pm

Here’s something about Hong Kong’s ethnic minority community that barely made the news this week: nearly one out of five among them live below the poverty line.

We’ve always known that the situation is quite dire for many downtrodden families in this often neglected demographic, but the latest hard numbers compiled by the government present a sobering reminder that the more you sweep this problem under the carpet, the more it festers and proliferates.

The poverty rate among the city’s ethnic minorities surged to 19.4 per cent in 2016 – that is 49,400 people – from 15.4 per cent in 2011. Even after taking into account government subsidies and welfare hand outs, the rate still rose to 14.5 per cent.

The 2016 by-census put the size of the city’s non-Chinese community (not counting foreign domestic helpers) at 254,700, or 3.8 per cent of the population.

South Asians – Indians, Pakistanis and Nepalis – made up the largest group at 30.6 per cent, and the poverty rate among them rate was significantly higher at 25.7 per cent.

Hong Kong ethnic minorities fall through the cracks

Those who tend to dismiss these Hong Kong residents as relatively insignificant in terms of overall numbers should note the exponential expansion of the ethnic minority community over the past five years, clocking up an average annual growth rate of 5.8 per cent, compared with 0.5 per cent for the rest of the population.

They are here to stay and they matter. And their numbers are growing at a rate that matters.

The statistics also highlight intergenerational poverty among ethnic minorities – more than 39 per cent of those classified as “poor” were born in Hong Kong, and over 74 per cent were considered “economically inactive”. The government said even if they were to find jobs, they would be minimum wage earners because of “low educational attainment and skills”.

The biggest barrier to better integration and job prospects is and has always been language.

Cantonese continues to be the poor brown man’s Achilles' heel in this city, the disconnect starting with an unsympathetic education system favouring only those who speak the language as their mother tongue and ending with the struggle to find a job in a discriminatory market.

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The language handicap for the underprivileged restricts their access to basic services such as health care and housing. The natural progression from this is their alienation and ghettoisation in the city’s rundown or remote districts. You can see a lot of that already, along with crime and delinquency among youth.

The government’s outreach programmes are not reaching out far enough to really make a difference. Charity should begin at home with inclusivity – it can start by recruiting more ethnic minorities into the civil service, removing unreasonable Chinese-language requirements and even putting their third-language skills to use in public service.

I’m not holding out much hope, though, when the city’s labour and welfare minister goes around saying there’s no way to reduce the number of people living below the poverty line.

All this when Hong Kong is looking at another obscenely massive budget surplus this year – HK$160 billion by some estimates, which is 10 times the amount forecast by the government and would expand the city’s fiscal reserves to well over HK$1 trillion.

Just how much of a melting pot is Hong Kong, Asia’s World City?

I’m not asking for cash handouts to the impoverished. I’m a believer in the old saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

It’s just that in the case of Hong Kong’s underprivileged ethnic minorities, those fishing classes are not only half-hearted and substandard, they’re not even conducted in a language that the students can understand.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post.