Hong Kong’s Racial Bias
The vivid posters around Hong Kong’s Central District proclaim
Hong Kong to be Asia’s World
City. But at best this
self-accorded accolade looks increasingly threadbare and at worst hides a
worrying level of discrimination against “brown” Asians from the Indian
subcontinent and Southeast Asia.
Over the past five years, the number of ethnic non-Chinese
has fallen from 5.1 percent to 5.0 percent of the population. That may not seem
much of a decline but it has occurred at a time when the economy has mostly
been in recovery from the financial malaise that gripped it from 1997 through
2003 and an influx of foreigners might have been expected.
However, more instructive than the numbers is the composition
of the city’s foreign population. An
increased percentage are domestic helpers who have no right to permanent
residence, rather than the business and professional classes who are the key to
the city’s international status.
Even among domestic helpers there has been a big shift. The numbers
of often better-educated Filipinos are falling, while those of Indonesians have
risen sharply, mostly because many are prepared to work for less than the
minimum wage prescribed by the government – a law that is seldom enforced by
officials who often show contempt for their brown servants.
The number of persons deemed to be “white” – it is not clear
what the definition is – has fallen from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent, clearly
indicating a decline in the numbers of Europeans, North Americans, and
Australasians, other than those of Chinese descent. Those would almost all be
from the professional and business classes. Fewer whites would not be a problem
if they were being replaced by other high-skilled foreigners to help keep Hong Kong connected to the non-Chinese world. But that is
not the case. Numbers of other Asians have at best been static.
Nor is the government encouraging them. The ethnic bias of
its formal immigration program is stunning. In addition to the fixed number of
mainlanders allowed to settle, and the small number of non-Chinese who acquire
permanent residence by virtue of staying here for seven years, there are two
categories of people the government is supposed to lure with offers of
permanent residence: big investors and those with special skills and talents.
The latter are now admitted under what is known as the
Quality Migrant Admission Scheme. Announced a year ago, it permits admission of
up to 1,000 people a year. Hong Kong, it was supposed, was opening up to
skilled people from anywhere, competing with the likes of Singapore, Australia, etc for brains and
special skills regardless of ethnicity or nationality. They would be admitted without
needing to have a job in advance.
But in reality the scheme is puny and the beneficiaries are almost
all from the mainland. In the first selection exercise, conducted in November, there
were 83 approvals out of 122 applications. Of these 76 percent were from
mainland China and only 2
percent from elsewhere in Asia. Details of
ethnicity were not available. In the second allotment, announced this month, 81
percent of the 66 successful applicants were from the mainland. They are
overwhelmingly male, between 30 and 39 years of age.
The next allotments will not be made till mid-2007. In other
words, the numbers are sure to fall far short of the original expectation and
the number of non-Chinese will be so small as to have minimal significance.
The same trend is apparent with the scheme to attract
investors. Under the capital investment program, those who invest upwards of
HK$6.5 million in financial assets or real estate can obtain residence without
having to set up an actual business. As of end-2006, 978 approvals had been
given representing HK$6.9 billion in investment. Of these 553 were mainlanders
and 144 residents of Taiwan or
foreigners accounted for less than 30 percent. Data on ethnicity is not
available but judging from the hassles those who are neither white nor Chinese
– and particularly Indians -- receive at the hands of Immigration and Customs
officers, Hong Kong seems reluctant to see more brown, let alone black, people
residing here other than as menial servants.
Quite apart from the issue of attracting non-Chinese who can
benefit “Asia’s world city” Hong Kong has yet to face up to the discrimination
faced by its brown minorities who were born or have acquired permanent
residence in the territory. While many Indians are members of the business and
professional classes, most from the Nepali and Pakistani communities, offspring
of soldiers and police who served under the British, are a poorly educated,
poorly paid underclass.
Those of sub-continental origin total about 0.7 percent of
the population or some 50,000 people. While proposals for a law outlawing
racial discrimination in employment have been discussed, the government has
been dragging its feet reluctant to challenge the ethnic bias which was deeply
embedded in Hong Kong by the British.
While Hong Kong remains an
open economy and it is relatively easy for foreigners to get work permits or
set up businesses, there is scant evidence that the government is doing
anything to ensure that its international status is sustained through a liberal
immigration policy and respect for other Asians.