Every March 21 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, yet everywhere in the world, including Hong Kong, needs more than just one day a year to talk about the extent and complexity of racism in our society.

It is the belief of Hong Kong Unison that “no one is born racist; one learns to be racist”. People learn racism by not learning enough about and communicating with different races and ethnicities in their daily lives, and particularly in the formative years.

Ethnic minorities make up 6.4% of Hong Kong’s population according to the 2011 Census; which means there is one ethnic minority in every 15 people. But many Chinese and ethnic minority students are segregated de facto in the education system, so each is unfamiliar with the other’s culture and practices, leading to prejudice and discrimination.

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Photo: Hong Kong Unison.

In the school year 2014/15, there were public primary and secondary schools, especially the former “designated schools”, in which non-Chinese speaking (NCS) students made up as much as 98% of the student population. This de facto segregation contravenes Article 3 (No Racial Segregation or Apartheid) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, causing harm to ethnic minority students on personal, social and economic fronts, affecting their chances to integrate into mainstream society and their upward mobility.

Chinese students, on the other hand, lack sensitivity towards different races and cultures. A diverse learning environment should be cultivated at a young age during the prime time of social development to ensure differences are recognized, accepted, and respected in the long run.

In recent years, although the government has tried to desegregate the public education system by removing the label “designated schools” in 2013/14 and introducing the “Chinese Language Curriculum Second Language Learning Framework” in 2014/15, de facto segregation in some schools remains serious.

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An ethnic minority group protesting during the Umbrella Movement protests.

As the education system undergoes slow transformation to provide equal opportunities to children of all races, one basic protection available to ethnic minorities meanwhile is the Race Discrimination Ordinance (RDO) which came into effect in 2009.

In theory, people of different races should enjoy equal rights in matters such as education. Public awareness of racial discrimination should have increased in the last seven years. However, the numerous loopholes and exemptions in the RDO have rendered it inadequate in protecting ethnic minorities against racial discrimination in many areas. For example, discrimination based on nationality or medium of instruction in education and vocational training is not prevented by the RDO.

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Education Secretary Eddie Ng at a primary school. Photo: GovHK.

As a human rights-based organisation, Hong Kong Unison hopes the Equal Opportunities Commission will propose RDO amendments in its belated Discrimination Law Review report to rectify the flaws that do not mandate equal rights and opportunities to all ethnicities.

While the law affords some protection, public education and early integration are still the key to uprooting racism. To achieve true racial harmony, the government should establish a diversity and inclusion policy for schools, to better integrate ethnic minority students into the mainstream classroom, eliminate de facto segregation, and level the playing field for both Chinese and non-Chinese students.

The author is the Executive Director of Hong Kong Unison

Hong Kong Unison is a charity and NGO which advocates for policy reforms for Hong Kong's ethnic minority residents. It receives no government funding and aims to promote racial equality in the city.