The theme for this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (IDERD) is “Voices for Action Against Racism” which focuses on strengthening voices that can prevent and stand up against racism. It translates to safe public participation and representation in all areas of decision-making to prevent and combat racism.

I have maintained that Hong Kong’s problem with racial discrimination is not so much overt racism as much as systemic racial barriers. Education, employment, access to services are all areas that suffer from inherent issues that prevent equal opportunities for those from non-Chinese communities

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Having talked about those issues in previous articles, I wish to focus on the topic of racial integration for this year’s message on IDERD. “Integration” is generally defined as the action or process of successfully joining or mixing with a different group of people. Unless people get to know each other, there is likely to be suspicion, wariness or plain avoidance of those who are dissimilar. 

In my interactions with people, it surprises me to find quite a number of Hong Kong people who have never interacted with anyone from other communities. They have never had a conversation with anyone unlike themselves. This is especially surprising given Hong Kong’s long history of diversity. 

We need early intervention. There is enough scholarly and empirical evidence to prove that children do not see race. Biases and prejudices form over time based on adult behaviour kids see around them. The good news here is that we can prevent these biases from forming by modelling the right behaviour for them from an early age.

See also: Hong Kong’s school system is leaving non-Chinese minorities behind

Kindergartens and schools have to be model environments where children of all races can mingle and are treated the same. Parents have the responsibility of continuing that education beyond the classroom. For this, adults need to be educated on the subject of racism, equality and diversity too. Public messaging has to echo these values.

Integration does not imply that all individuals are considered the same. “We are all human beings after all” is tantamount to disregarding people’s diverse identities. Culture, religion, language, appearance, and family customs are just a few aspects that make up an individual’s unique identity. 

Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP.

Hong Kong must celebrate the diversity it is lucky to have, be it through public greetings for important regional cultural festivals or showcasing cultural attributes of its diverse population. 

Hong Kong has some challenges in truly embracing integration. Ditching a majority mindset would be the first step. This requires every policy and guideline to be passed through a racial equality and accessibility lens. “Will the policy in question have similar outcomes for every Hong Kong resident regardless of their race?” is a question that must be asked prior to implementation. 

Representation is another hurdle to be crossed. Are we listening to diverse voices when planning and executing policies that would impact everyone, including those from racial minorities? Sometimes the impact may be more or different, but you would never know if you do not hear them.

Language is often brought up as a barrier that prevents those from racially diverse communities from participating in mainstream activities, including policy making. However, I argue that this problem is one that can be solved and should have been solved by now. Why is it that learning of spoken Cantonese and written Chinese is not keeping pace with the demand? 

Some schools, usually those with a higher concentration of non-Chinese students, use Jyutping to make learning Chinese accessible to children from all linguistic backgrounds. Photo: Maggie Holmes.

Many adults I know from non-Chinese communities, particularly parents, would like to learn the language to help their school-going children but are starved of viable language learning options. As far as students go, it is inexcusable that they spend their entire schooling years in local schools and yet come out without adequate fluency in Chinese, especially reading and writing. 

Not only does this result in their not being able to pursue meaningful careers and opting for second-best or worse choices, it also means they cannot participate in many policy discussions with the mainstream public. The Equal Opportunities Commission along with several NGOs have been pushing the Government for a much-overdue revamp of the education system for years and we still do not see desirable results. 

Racial integration is not a slogan or a buzzword. It is lived experience. Unfortunately, it is something that will not happen automatically. Hong Kong has to first believe that diversity is good for its success as an international city. Secondly, it has to confront the challenges that have been created to achieving true racial integration. Finally, it has to uproot each barrier one by one to truly earn its title as Asia’s World City.


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Ricky Chu

Ricky Chu is the Chairperson of Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission.