Yes, it was embarrassing that Hong Kong’s immigration chief chose last week to announce a possible tightening of visa requirements for travellers from South Asia while Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was inking a potentially lucrative trade and investment agreement in the Indian capital of New Delhi.

What should be downright mortifying, however, is Leung’s return—with a delegation of 40 business tycoons in tow— to a rich and vibrant city in which South Asians are routinely discriminated against and pushed to the economic margins.

modi and cy leung india
Photo: GovHK.

It’s well past time for the Hong Kong government to get serious about this blight of racism, which has gone virtually unchecked for so long.

No doubt city officials across the board will bristle at the charge and point out that—after a decade of wrangling over the particulars—Hong Kong passed its first anti-discrimination legislation in 2008 and that, six years later, the Education Bureau established a “framework” to help ethnic minorities learn Cantonese in school so as to improve their chances of gainful employment thereafter.

They will fail to mention, however, that the government made a mockery of the anti-racism ordinance by exempting itself from its terms and that there has not been a single prosecution for racism in Hong Kong since the bill took effect.

refugees hong kong
Photo: Emmanuel Serna.

Indeed, if the government had not been excluded from the legislation, then ethnic minorities could—and should—have sued the bureau for the blatant discrimination they face in the city’s education system, which the unsatisfactory 2014 framework did little to redress.

The fact is, Hong Kong is a racist city, albeit possibly the least-agitated such city on the planet, and has been so since the first Indian and Nepalese recruits of the British army arrived here after Britain seized Hong Kong Island from China in 1841 following the first Opium War.

The visa restrictions broached by Director of Immigration Eric Chan Kwok-ki are just the latest sign of that. Derogatory street names such as Mo Lo Miu Gai in Mid-Levels—kindly translated in English as Mosque Street—provide daily testimony to the city’s legacy of racism.

The government’s response to this long history of discrimination can only be described as one of malign neglect.

hk ethnic minority
An ethnic minority group protesting during last year’s Umbrella Movement.

It’s fair to ask whether Hong Kong officials are even aware of their own research. While a recently published 150-page analysis of the city’s ethnic minorities by the Census and Statistics Department makes for dry reading, it nevertheless paints a devastating picture of inequality and indifference.

Released last December, the report’s charts, graphs and recitation of statistics clearly establish that a disproportionate number of South Asians—that is, residents from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh—do not live in the Hong Kong that is advertised as “Asia’s world city.” Rather, their city is a third-world miasma of poverty, racial discrimination and inadequate access to education and public services.

With one of the largest wealth gaps in the developed world and a poverty rate of 15 percent even after welfare handouts and other benefits are factored in, Hong Kong is a tough place to live for a lot of people. For ethnic minorities, who comprise 6.5 percent of the city’s 7.2 million population, however, it’s a lot tougher.

Of the 61,400 South Asians living in the city in 2014, according to the report, 22 percent fell below the poverty line, which is set at half the median income for a given household size (currently HK$3,500 for a one-person household and up to HK$18,800 for a family of six).

South Asian couples with children fared the worst, with a shocking 73 percent of Pakistani families, the most unfortunate group, living in poverty.

That’s a burning red flag, but one no Hong Kong chief executive or minister has been willing to pick up.

Ethnic minority women in Hong Kong Bushra and Aminah
Ethnic minority women in Hong Kong Bushra and Aminah

Although the Hong Kong government is sitting on an estimated HK$1.57 trillion in consolidated government reserves, making us the richest city in the world, our miserly officials – starting with Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah – refuse to share any of this mountain of wealth with the poor.

And it’s not just Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities who are being ignored. In a city with a deep-rooted Confucian tradition of respect for the older generation, one in three elderly people are mired in poverty.

The problem, then, goes beyond the scourge of racism to a systemic inability to break with the laissez-faire colonial past that made Hong Kong a trade and finance hub but that no longer fits its 21st-century needs.

Photo: Brian Yen.

For too many years now, Hong Kong has been a first-world city with a third-world mentality.

And there are so many ways that needs to change, but it could certainly start with greater acceptance of ethnic minorities, which should translate into policies that better integrate these groups into Hong Kong society.

Taking 40 tycoons on a first-class trip to India proved easy work for Hong Kong’s chief executive.

Confronting the crippling discrimination that Indians and other ethnic minorities face in his own city, however, appears beyond him and anyone else currently serving in the Hong Kong government.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.