We need more robust anti-discrimination laws

November 16, 2021 09:44
Photo: RTHK

I could vividly recall that day, when a Mandarin-speaking banker was encircled and surrounded by a group of virulent, acrimonious protesters (or pedestrians?) in Central. That was an otherwise rather innocuous day in a summer of upheaval – a summer that few of us residing in this city could ever forget.

I was rather deeply struck by that sight, for multiple reasons – no least because it typified the poignancy and tragedy of the Mainland China-Hong Kong tensions, with those bearing the brunt of the conflict rarely being, if ever, those in positions of genuine power. Yet it was also the vindictiveness of it all – the mob, closing in on someone whom they deemed to be foreign, to be alien to this land: a mainlander, whose only “crime” was speaking Chinese on Chinese soil, castigated, of course for being “un-PC” at a time when the PC thing was to go with the flow, to jump on the bandwagon of anti-Mainland China vitriol.

This piece isn’t about belabouring the point that I have made, to the point of tedium, elsewhere – I don’t want to go through the motions of explaining why the human costs of the Mainland China-Hong Kong conflict, oft-overlooked, have been devastating. Nor do I want to rehash the standard stereotypes, that all those who supported the protesters were ostensibly “rioters”, and that all those who opposed the protests were thus “civilised patriots” – such dichotomies sure sell well on Facebook (and wherever else people publish writings these days), but I’m not, for one, keen on selling well. So let’s set that aside.

What I’d like to focus on, then, is the need for more robust anti-discrimination legislation. Our current crop of legislators are right on this point – it is apparent that mainland Chinese migrants, as well as tourists (or those passing by the city on a more transient basis) are often confronted with subtle, yet insidious “intra-ethnic racism” emanating from their “local” counterparts. And it’s not hard to see signs of this – whether it be the far-right, xenophobic rhetoric framing all mainland Chinese migrants as “locusts” or “barbarians”, or the vigilante violence and assault inflicted upon Mandarin speakers during the 2019 protests, or, indeed, the doxxing of politically active Hong Kong citizens who had been born and raised in the mainland. For far too long we have swept the problem under the carpet – thus allowing deeply toxic and insidious narratives concerning our mainland compatriots to dictate our public discourse.

So I’m all in favour of legislating against the bigotry directed towards our compatriots – whether it be on grounds of the language they speak, the culture they represent, or the fine-grained sub-ethnicities with which they opt to self-identify. More fundamentally, however, it’s imperative that we see anti-discrimination legislation as only the start – and not a panacea. Resolving animosity and long-standing grievances between Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese migrants will take far more than mere legislation – those who are structurally embedded with bigotry aside, a vast majority of those who espouse skeptical or reprobating attitudes towards their mainland counterparts must be critically engaged: we must engage them, in order to change their minds. Othering and shutting them out of current discourses cannot possibly be the be-all-and-end-all to tackling structural racism: just look at the States, for one, where progressives (yours truly included) have long suffered from the ailment of struggling to reach across the aisle. In seeking moral purity and eschewing what we take to be sordid, murky territories, we tie our own hands with knots of prudishness and snobbery.

Whilst we’re at it, too, it’s high time that we legislated against other forms of discrimination. Consider the rampant homophobia and transphobia that proliferate throughout Hong Kong, or – indeed – the blatant ableism that has come to manifest through how we talk about, speak with, and accommodate (or fail to) disabled individuals. For a city that is ostensibly international and seemingly cosmopolitan, Hong Kong is terribly backwards when it comes to enshrining the basic rights against persecution of displaced persons, asylum seekers, and refugees. We’re a humanitarian disaster in the making – that much is clear.

So yes, absolutely do legislate against the perilous and vile actions and inflammatory rhetoric targeting mainland Chinese individuals – but let’s also apply the same standards to other forms of discrimination that we must systemically root out and redress. Let’s legislate against the exclusion of individuals from jobs or spaces on grounds of their immigration/migrant status; let’s legislate to protect the gender identities and self-expressions of LGBTQIA+ individuals. Let’s make Hong Kong a safer place – and a genuine home for all, not just the few.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review