Race and Hong Kong

Pepito Mamaril, a 60-year old Filipino, flew into Hong Kong on Nov. 2 to mourn the death and attend the wake of his sister-in-law. For an already emotionally fraught visit, what happened next was both traumatic and unnecessary.

Mamaril was detained in an Immigration Department cell for hours and deported the same evening to Manila, thus doubly distressing him by treating him as a criminal. Hong Kong Immigration is not obliged to give reasons for its decisions.

Racial discrimination on the streets is one thing. Having that infect official discharge of duty by the uniformed services raises serious questions about where Hong Kong is heading as a society. Hong Kong has always prided itself on strict observance of the letter and spirit of the law.

Mamaril was not here to join anti-Beijing rallies or to participate in a Falun Gong collective breathing exercise. Philippine nationals are usually granted a 14-day visa free stay in Hong Kong.

Immigration declared that Mamaril "did not have a valid reason to be granted an entry visa". The P500 (HK$90) cash that Pepito had was also deemed inadequate for his stay. All of those assessments were made by immigration officers despite the fact that Mamaril’s niece Mary Ann, daughter of the deceased, faxed through a death certificate of her mother and rushed to the airport to provide surety for his care and return.

If the situation were reversed, and a Hong Kong man was refused entry into Manila to attend the funeral of his close relative, one can imagine the outraged calls to the Hong Kong government and the China Embassy to remonstrate with the Philippine authorities for insensitive high-handedness.

The farce was further compounded by an immigration officer who spoke on the phone to Mamaril’s older brother, the husband of the deceased, a Hong Kong permanent resident, in Cantonese, to which the hapless man at the other end could not respond.

Was the officer incapable of seeking clarification in English? If not, what is he doing in a public service whose role is to process international visitors? What was the point of querying a Filipino in Cantonese?

To top it all, the final official justification was a declaration of classic bureaucratese: "The deportation order has already been made. This is just a one-off. If your uncle wants to come back, he can always come back to Hong Kong."

To which the daughter’s riposte was "I've only got one mother to bury." She lamented that her uncle was the closest friend her mother had on her father's side of the family and the only one who could make it to Hong Kong for the funeral.

Hong Kong Immigration made sure he didn't.

Ethnic minorities constitute 5 percent of Hong Kong’s 7 million residents, 95 percent of whom are ethnic Chinese. The minority 5 percent comprise Europeans, South & Southeast Asians and about 250,000 domestic helpers (largely Filipinas & Indonesians).

Hong Kong has never been known for crass and overt racism. If at all, it is subtle. It takes the form of some landlords denying people of color housing, some taxi drivers refusing to take such passengers and refusal to employ non-Chinese in white collar jobs for which they are eminently qualified or in under-paying them. It shows at restaurants where a family sits to lunch excluding the domestic helper who has to manage unruly children but is not invited to share the communal meal.

Hong Kong's police and immigration officers are by and large respected for their courtesy, helpfulness and adherence to process. There is never an instance of having to bribe them for merely doing their jobs, which is endemic in Indonesia, the Philippines and all of the South Asian countries.

It is therefore all the more worrying that this high standard of professional conduct by the uniformed services may be eroding.

The 'Right of Abode' scare

Recently there has been heightened public anxiety about the prospect of 'right-of-abode' being extended to domestic helpers who were previously excluded from such benefits despite meeting the seven-year residency window. Domestic helpers are also excluded from Hong Kong's minimum wage law.

Crafty politicians jumped on a public anxious about economic contraction and high inflation to scare-monger shamelessly. There is no faster way to project political credentials than by frightening locals about the threat of job losses and school and hospital facilities being swamped by an immigrant horde waiting at the gates. It is a well-proven trick practiced by cynical politicians everywhere.

The government provided no leadership in clarifying the administrative tools already available to the Immigration Department to control permanent residency on several criteria. It allowed disinformation to reach hysterical levels and for opportunistic politicians to fuel paranoia.

It suited the government and pro-Beijing compatriots that the Civic Party and Democrats sympathetic to the legal challenge were politically disadvantaged before the District Council elections held Sunday.

Regina Ip, who peddled the seriously flawed Article 23 Security Bill under the Tung Chee-hwa administration, made a dramatic visit to Beijing to lobby the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to rule on the right of abode question, which was raised by domestic helper Evangeline Vallejos, who sought a review after having lived continuously in Hong Kong for 25 years.

Vallejos was granted leave to apply for right of abode by Hong Kong's Court of First Instance which held that the Immigration Ordinance which excludes domestic helpers is illegal as it contradicts the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution.

The government expressed disappointment and is appealing. It has declared that after it exhausts all avenues within the justice system, it can ask Beijing to rubber-stamp what it wants. It has done that before. Party bosses in Beijing have no problem with that.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment & Progress of Hong Kong put it about that if 125,000 eligible domestics were granted Right of Abode, unemployment would soar from 3.5 percent to 7 percent and if spouses were allowed in, it would rocket to 10 percent.

A token race bill exempts the government

Hong Kong is obliged by China's ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) to introduce specific legislation to curtail racial discrimination. The UN Committee on Economic, Social & Political Rights has criticized Hong Kong's lack of legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in the private sector, as a breach of its obligations.

After a decade of laggardly discussion in the Legislative Council, the government finally introduced a Race Discriminatory Ordinance in July 2008 which came into effect in 2009. It excludes new immigrants from the mainland and exempts the administration itself from the provisions of its own law designed to criminalize race discrimination!

The government maintains that as mainland immigrants are Han Chinese, the same as Hong Kong residents, they technically cannot suffer race discrimination. That can only be classed as 'social' discrimination which is outside the definition of the new law.

The most virulent discrimination visited on any group by Hong Kong society is on mainland immigrants in housing, schools, hospitals, employment and through exclusion from social interaction. These are the voiceless poor. China's new rich can buy their way past Hong Kong's underclass without depending on local goodwill.

By excluding new mainland immigrants from anti-discrimination protection, the Hong Kong government allows the continuation of such uncivil treatment. It defeats the intent of the law. It makes a mockery of calls for 'patriotic' education by sycophantic politicians. And the logic for the administration exempting itself from the law is to prevent 'frivolous claims' for compensation from minorities seeking to 'make money' by suing the government for alleged discrimination!

All of which sums up the lackadaisical attitude of the administration about ethnic and social discrimination in Asia's 'World City'.

Race and Kindergarten

Earlier this year the Equal Opportunities Commission commissioned the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education to undertake a survey of the very young in which 152 youngsters aged 3-6 years were shown pictures of dark skinned, Chinese and Caucasian adults and asked for their responses on a range of perceived attributes.

Professor Wong Wan-chi of the department of educational psychology of the Chinese University of Hong Kong was alarmed at the results: "Children usually do not by nature have discriminatory attitudes at an early age. It is learned. It has to do with what they pick up from adults." This points to a critical need for anti-race discrimination education of the public and formalized programs in schools - neither of which is on the cards in Asia's World City.