On July 10, Hong Kong's legislative body passed the Chinese territory's first-ever law against racial discrimination. The bill was in the works for more than a decade, the product of tortured haggling over clauses and amendments and tireless campaigning by members of the city's vocal civil society. Yet the passage of this landmark legislation has been met by anything but elation. Its original proponents see it as too weak, while some suspect the Beijing-backed government would rather it had not passed at all. "It's very shameful," says Fermi Wong, director of the minority advocacy group Hong Kong Unison. "There has been a lack of commitment throughout."
Hong Kongers like to style themselves as denizens of a "world city." The former British colony, which has a population of 7 million, has an undeniable cosmopolitan sheen as a financial center and budding cultural hub. Yet, lurking beneath the flashy skyscrapers, are hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities who don't fit comfortably into this Chinese city's conception of itself. Many, particularly among the South Asian community, have roots here that predate some of Hong Kong's Cantonese people by generations, yet they are often made to feel like outsiders. Most Africans and South Asians living in Hong Kong have their own horror stories of racism, from humiliating police searches on the street to being blocked from entering clubs and bars. It's not out of the ordinary for an Indian banker to be denied a flat for rent on the grounds that the landlord doesn't want his property to smell like curry. "This has been going on too long in a city with world-class aspirations," says David O'Rear, chief economist of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, which sat in during the drafting of the law. "It was getting embarrassing."
The new law aims to chip away at prejudice by making it harder for the private sector to discriminate on grounds of race in areas such as housing or employment. But some lawmakers and activists are incensed that, unlike previous anti-discrimination ordinances covering gender and disability, the law shields the Hong Kong bureaucracy from being held to the same standards as businesses. By lobbying for the exemption, "the government is using the law to undercut the very rights [we] seek to guarantee," said Hong Kong lawmaker Margaret Ng in a recent speech.
Moreover, ethnic Chinese arriving from the mainland who also suffer from Hong Kongers' bias aren't protected from racial discrimination because the law deals only with ethnicity, not nationality. "In the colonial past, signs used to say 'No Chinese or dogs allowed,'" says Law Yuk-Kai of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. "Now, they could just read 'No Chinese nationals or dogs allowed.'"
Wong of Hong Kong Unison says that, while the new law is a step forward, the city still needs to follow through with enforcement and anti-discrimination education programs. "Hong Kong must prove that it's more than just an international money-making center," she says and that begins with a greater appreciation for ethnic diversity. The city may imagine itself as Asia's cosmopolis, but it has yet to start acting like it.