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

Macao; actual

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.