Hong Kong: 'World City' or Racist?
Cyril Pereira | November 09, 2011
Pepito Mamaril, a 60-year-old Filipino, flew into Hong Kong on Nov. 2 to 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.
If 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 Chinese 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?
To top it all off, the final official justification was a declaration of classic bureaucratanese: "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."
Ethnic minorities constitute 5 percent of Hong Kong's seven million residents, 95 percent of whom are ethnic Chinese. The minority 5 percent comprise Europeans, South and Southeast Asians and about 250,000 domestic helpers (largely Filipinos and 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 or in underpaying 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. You never have to bribe them to merely do 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.
Recently there has been 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 requirement. 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.
The government provided no leadership in clarifying the administrative tools already available 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 on Sunday.
Regina Ip, who peddled the seriously flawed Article 23 Security Bill, made a dramatic visit to Beijing to lobby for a ruling 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 that excludes domestic helpers is illegal as it contradicts Hong Kong's mini-constitution.
The government expressed disappointment and is appealing.
The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said that if 125,000 eligible domestic helpers 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.
Hong Kong is obliged by China's ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to introduce specific legislation to curtail racial discrimination. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and 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.
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."
Cyril Pereira is a former director of operations at the South China Morning Post.