Mandela’s lesson for Hong Kong

by Sa Law

Chinese version 中文版曼德拉給香港的一課

Nelson Mandela has passed away. During his life he left a lasting example to us of passion for justice, courage, and persistence. In Hong Kong as well as around the world, people will reflect on his achievements and the inspiration – and remember his major achievement, the ending of racial apartheid in South Africa.

Now, more than 20 years have passed since that moment; in Hong Kong we may think that racial struggle is something of the past, and something relevant only to Western countries. This could not be more wrong. Hong Kong is, without any doubt, a city in which racial apartheid is real and alive. The only problem is to recognize it. What, after all, is the meaning of apartheid? It means the official policy and system which legally, politically and economically discriminates against and separates people, according to race, caste, etc.

What is apartheid?

Apartheid must be distinguished from the concept of racism. The term ‘racism’ generally is used to describe the attitude of some individuals towards others based on their skin colour – a belief that people of different skin colour are inherently different and deserve unequal treatment. It is socially condemned as many people already recognize the harm that it does to individuals who are discriminated against. Thus, a government may legislate anti-discrimination laws, meant to end acts by individuals or groups against certain other people based on race.

But discrimination can be based on various types of difference – for example language, occupation, sexual orientation, gender….In Hong Kong, separation of people by race tends to be mixed with separation by occupation and language.

But the separation of different kinds of people that occurs in Hong Kong is beyond racism of individuals. When a government or a society has policies and organizes society in a way that only certain groups are treated differently, this is beyond racism; it is apartheid, like the South African system of separate of blacks and whites was. And like in South Africa, it is such a natural part of the society now that many people fail to realize the reality and the harm of Hong Kong apartheid.

Migrant domestic workers – everywhere, yet invisible

Hong Kong has been relying on migrant domestic workers from Southeast Asian countries, especially the Philippines and Indonesia, for over three decades. Now, they composed 17% of our female workforce. The ways in which migrant domestic workers are discriminated against are so numerous that one article does not suffice. They come to Hong Kong to work legally, as other migrant workers from Australia, France or Japan do, but they are treated differently. They must return to their country every two years; they are not allowed to bring dependents; they may not ever gain the Right of Abode and thus may also never gain the right to vote; their working hours are not counted in the Population Census, like other residents’ working hours are; they are legally forced to live with their employers; and their visa only lasts two weeks after their employment is ended, far different from the case of other migrant workers.

Due to their long working hours for six days a week, they lack the chance to socialize and mingle with the rest of Hong Kong society as others; they also generally lack ability to speak, read and write Chinese. Thus, they end up spatially and linguistically separated from the majority of Hong Kong people; and despite forming a large community of 320,000 workers, they are never considered part of the greater Hong Kong community, and their demands for equality or better rights are often greeted with deep outrage, as if they do not know their place.

In their workplaces, they often encounter deeply, shamefully discriminatory and racist treatment. For example, it is common for employers to demand that their clothes be washed separately, and even to demand that they use a separate toilet – even if it means using a toilet outside the home. They get verbally and physically abused, but the physical safety of these women is not a concern to the government the same as that of local women. In spite of thousands of complaint reports and abuse cases being reported each year, the government has not made serious policy improvements. For women who are brave enough to sue their abusive employers, the government does not even provide a shelter, and the abused workers are not allowed to work while waiting for their legal case, and must even pay the visa renewal fee of HK$160 themselves.

Our society deeply depends on the labour of the 320,000 women who have come here to work for our families. Not only homes, but also schools, workplaces and tutorial centres depend on their labour; not only for their labour, but also for their consumption of mobile phones, food, gifts, our economy depend on them.

Can we imagine giving them equality? Can we imagine that a working domestic worker mother could bring her child here as a dependent? And that after seven years, they could have the choice of living here and contributing to society perhaps as a nurse or English teacher, rather than permanently only as a second-class domestic worker?

Hong Kong-born ethnic minorities: are they not Hong Kong people like ‘us’?

Besides the migrant domestic workers, there are others who are deeply discriminated against due to not being ethnically Chinese. They are ethnically Pakistani, Nepalese, Sri Lankan… and others of different backgrounds; but they live here as permanent residents. Yet are they regarded as Hong Kong people?

The systematic nature of the discrimination against them is most obvious in the education system. Out of 852 government schools, 31 “designated schools” enrol mostly ethnic minorities with a few Chinese. They are spatially segregated. They have schools to attend, but have no chance to integrate in schools with other children; this affects their chance to learn Chinese well, and affects their future employment opportunities. In spite of the tireless work of the organization Unison which has been focusing on gaining equality for education of ethnic minorities for 15 years, the Hong Kong government has hardly advanced on this matter. The UN itself only this year confirmed the existence of ‘de facto discrimination’ in Hong Kong, and urged the Hong Kong government to “urgently abolish” the so-called designated schools and use the resources to promote minority children’s access to mainstream schools.

Why can we not see the racism and the apartheid?

Hong Kong is after all a former British colony. The famous tactic of colonists: divide and rule. The colonists lived on the Peak; Chinese were banned from living there. The rights and living conditions of the colonists and the colonized were clearly extremely different. Hong Kong society has been long accustomed to seeing those of a privileged class treated differently from those without. White meant privilege and Chinese meant servant. Now, the colours marking privilege or lack of it have changed. Still, the custom of discrimination continues – something easy to do, since the skin colour or employment category is still closely linked with class. Wealthy Indonesians or Filipinos who enter Hong Kong as bankers are not likely to face the hardships that their compatriot domestic workers do, because they are of the privileged class.

Furthermore, aside from the colonial heritage of maintaining racial divisions, most Hong Kong Chinese society remain very separated by space and language from those who are suffering from the apartheid. It is easy to not even be aware of their suffering and humiliation, and believe that having a couple of foreign friends “proves” that Hong Kong people are sophisticated and “above” parochial racist attitudes. But this is a self-serving delusion.

Hong Kong is a city of apartheid. It is apartheid of class as well as race. A World Values Survey this year about racial attitudes in Hong Kong has revealed around 27% of Hong Kong people would not like to live next to somone of another race; this is a high rate, for an ostensibly international city and testifies to the failure of mere education.[i] The Hong Kong system of apartheid must be overturned for true equality and justice to arrive; the invisible suffering must be made visible; we must recognize our debt to our fellow citizens who have lived, worked and aged here together with us, as one community – whether they are domestic workers or bankers, whether they are of Chinese or Indian descent.

Mandela is gone but we are here: time to act now

But the road ahead is surely very long. It may be long but we have to get on that road. Mandela showed us it may be long, but those who dream of justice cannot stay silent and inactive. It is true that the problems of his country were not solved with the ending of the system of racial apartheid. Now, the country has severe social problems, and the ruling party, the African National Congress, which Mandela took over as President upon his release from prison, is now linked with corruption and is unleashing violence on shack-dwellers who have been organizing for land and housing rights.[ii] So we must remember: the evil of racism and apartheid is deeply linked with economic inequality, and tackling individual attitudes with education is never enough.

The great leaders of social change in the last century – Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela – recognized the economic roots that were intertwined with racial inequality, and for this they were called communists and targeted by governments and business interests.

Real social change is sorely needed in Hong Kong, the financial capital of the East and soon the leading financial centre of the world – yet also a place where elderly are forced to collect rubbish for income; where hundreds of thousands of female domestic workers do not even have the right to a room with a lock; where Hong Kong-born citizens lack the right to education in Chinese; where every day, the poor are forced to live in smaller and smaller homes. The inequality and injustice are overflowing; those who see it must not stay silent and inactive.

Let us not ‘move on’ from this death after the tributes and reflections end but rather be inspired by Nelson Mandela and continue his work in the world.

We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.
- Nelson Mandela




Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>