By Puja Kapai and Phyllis Cheung
On Wednesday, the convener of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), Jimmy Sham, was viciously attacked and injured en route to attend a CHRF meeting. Very shortly after, social media was rife with posts inciting racially targeted violence against South Asian businesses, Chungking Mansions and even places of worship, including the Kowloon Masjid on Sunday.
These calls came before any statement from Sham or any eyewitness accounts of the incident had emerged. Two days after the attack, it has become clear from Sham’s own statement that the attack has nothing to do with ethnicity, race or religious background and warned against the incitement of racial and religious hatred as a predicate for violence. The matter is now under police investigation.
The use of race to ignite and fan the flames of anger in an extremely charged political environment is a well-known trope and widely used diversion tactic to fuel distrust and further divisions in political movements. The use of the “race card” in Hong Kong is not new either. Crime has long been racialised in Hong Kong and the politicisation of race in the context of political movements and violence also appeared during the Umbrella movement of 2014 when it was alleged that masked men of South Asian background had been hired to target women on the frontlines of the civil disobedience movement.
Most recently, after 21 July 2019, rumours racialising the indiscriminate violence perpetrated by masked men against commuters in Yuen Long circulated with unprecedented virality. Moreover, messages that South Asian men were behind the attacks and were being paid to target protesters spread like wildfire across the territory. At the same time, counter-messages appealed to South Asians, especially the youth, to resist the temptation of making a small monetary gain which would see them throw their “futures” away. Apart from the many problematic assumptions underlying these messages for each of these incidents, there was never any substantiation of these rumours. Quite simply, to date, no evidence has materialised linking attackers with members of a particular racial background as insinuated.
Necessarily, as we await police investigation of any leads into the masterminds behind this horrendous attack on Sham and what his leadership symbolises presently for a segment of Hong Kong in these times, it behoves us to consider who stands to benefit from such fear-mongering on grounds of race. As the Chief Imam Arshad, the Federation of Ethnic Communities, as well as various voices from the broader Hong Kong community, have all impressed upon us, Hong Kong’s ethnic communities have had a long history of peaceful coexistence and share in the aspirations of all Hong Kong people for an inclusive, rights-respecting and peaceful society.
Those shamelessly calling for racially charged attacks on the pretext that ethnic minorities are somehow involved are deliberately targeting communities who have long lived life on the margins to destroy social harmony between different communities in Hong Kong. The evidence has not borne out such allegations in the past and there is no reason to believe these baseless allegations now. Incitement of violence against racial minorities is designed to distract from the actual sources of ongoing public dissatisfaction. We must remain on guard and resist being sucked into the violence and vandalism such racially-charged vitriol appeals to. The widespread online racial hatred seeks to further polarise society by scapegoating and fomenting hatred towards an already vulnerable, visible ethnic minority community. Such incitement of racially-motivated hate breeds chaos and threatens to undermine rather than advance principles of inclusion, the core value being pursued by the movement.
Leading a principled movement that does not stoop to the level of those sowing seeds of distrust requires that such calls for rough justice by mob-rule be vehemently rejected. Solidarity is the source of all strength and the lifesource to sustain an inclusive, united and peaceful Hong Kong. Whatever side one falls on in respect of the ongoing political crisis in Hong Kong, our future cannot be tainted by hands bloodied by bigotry by turning on each other.
We must all unequivocally and resoundingly reject calls to racialise the political movement. This is pitting Hong Kong people against each other – for ethnic minorities are and have long been a part of the fabric of Hong Kong. It is absolutely critical in this moment to take a stand – if we are willing to let our principles fall by the wayside by succumbing to such base fears, in the end, we may end up standing for nothing.
Puja Kapai is an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong. Phyllis Cheung is executive director at Hong Kong Unison.