Rampant racism in Hong Kong is why the government’s defence of its human rights record falls flat

  • Alice Wu says the UN Human Rights Council rightly took Hong Kong to task over its handling of the advocacy of democracy and autonomy in the city
  • For all the attention on these political developments, it is the government’s failure to address the everyday racism here that is most galling
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2018, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2018, 6:30pm

It’s no surprise that Hong Kong officials were put on the defence at the UN Human Rights Council hearing in Geneva last week. With all the high-profile reports in the international press on the latest in the city, the council would not be doing its job if it didn’t raise concerns at this five-yearly review of member states’ human rights record.

Five years ago, Hong Kong had yet to experience the Occupy Central pro-democracy protests, the disappearance of booksellers Beijing disapproves of, or popularly elected lawmakers degrade themselves by using a term associated with Imperial Japanese aggression at their oath-taking. The legislators’ antics paved the way for another interpretation of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, followed by the disqualification of four more lawmakers over their swearing-in, and the banning of the Hong Kong National Party. Let’s not forget also the ill-fated talk by the National Party founder at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and the subsequent rejection of the application for visa renewal by the British journalist who moderated the talk. And this is not a full list.

So, a lot has happened in the past five years to take us to the day last week when Hong Kong’s situation was singled out for attention during the hearing on China’s report.

And since this city is so obsessed with accolades, we must recognise that this is “a UN first”. Those who fear “mainlandisation” should be popping champagne corks: Hong Kong has been singled out and recognised, this proves we are not just another Chinese city. No fewer than seven country representatives even made use of a portion of their allocated precious 45 seconds to talk about Hong Kong!

Watch: Hong Kong issues unprecedented ban on a political party

Report on human rights concerns in Hong Kong removed from UN review hearing

The Hong Kong Universal Periodic Review Coalition, an alliance of 45 civil society groups, expressed surprise that Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung was part of the Chinese delegation to attend the hearing in Geneva. By sending a high-ranking official to represent Hong Kong, does it mean, as some believe, that the government has noticed the erosion of Hong Kong’s reputation as a city that protects human rights?

Well, maybe. Or perhaps Cheung was sent because he is trusted, notwithstanding recent media speculation that his boss is considering replacing him. Whatever the reasons, Cheung did not offer anything striking in his speech. His defence of Hong Kong’s record – calling the concerns “unwarranted, unfounded, and unsubstantiated” – did not impress.

If the government had actually cared, the chief executive could have gone herself, as she would have been the perfect walking proof of Hong Kong’s achievements in empowering women in government. In 1999, the UN had expressed concerns about the lack of fair representation of women in government. As the city’s first woman leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor would have shown that the glass ceiling has been shattered.

Watch: Carrie Lam’s first year in office

Hong Kong’s Basic Law is fundamentally undemocratic and must go

What is most insulting in Cheung’s UN statement is the yawn-inducing declaration that “Hong Kong will continue to forge ahead as Asia’s world city with openness, inclusiveness and diversity under the successful, innovative and well-tried ‘one country, two systems’.” Every time I hear “Asia’s world city”, I think of the systemic discrimination of ethnic minorities here.

The inclusiveness that Hong Kong promotes as a value does not extend to all. This is made clear by a social media campaign recently launched by the Hong Kong charity Resolve Foundation. Its “Stories of Everyday Racism in Hong Kong” video series shows vivid examples of such discrimination.

Watch: Stories of Everyday Racism in Hong Kong – Chained

Hong Kong was in fact pressed by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to show proof of its claim that racial discrimination is not a “prevalent or serious problem”. Unfortunately, that did not warrant a mention by the seven country representatives who spoke about Hong Kong.

The disproportionate attention given to one journalist’s visa denial, over the decades of discrimination faced by generations of ethnic minorities in this “world city”, is galling. Perhaps the video campaign and stories like Sarah Moran’s piece on Inkstone, “Just say you’re British’: Hong Kong’s dirty little secret”, can bring the attention needed to finally address the complex problem of racial discrimination that this city has inherited and passed down.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA