21/11/00 - The Financial Times

When Martin Jacques, a British journalist based in Hong Kong, approached a doctor at a Hong Kong public hospital to inquire about his wife, who had been admitted after an epileptic fit on January 1, the doctor was brusque. When he told his wife, Harinder Veriah, a Malaysian of Indian origin working for a London law firm, about the incident, she replied: “I am at the bottom of the pile here.”

The following day, Ms Veriah, 33 and until then in good health, died after suffering a respiratory arrest followed by a cardiac arrest. The boundaries that demarcate where rudeness ends and racism begins are difficult to draw, but Mr Jacques’ impassioned denunciation of the prejudice he believes his wife faced at the government hospital has cast into focus what critics charge is a pervasive strain of discrimination in Hong Kong.

An inquest that seeks to determine what led to Ms Veriah’s death will conclude today with its verdict. The doctor says he misunderstood Mr Jacques’ question. Yet Ms Veriah’s perception that she was being slighted at the hospital because of her race, says Christine Loh, a former legislator, “is consistent with that of people I’ve talked to from ethnic minorities in Hong Kong who constantly get a sense of being ignored, of not being there”.

Ms Loh, who tried to convince the government to enact laws against racial discrimination before quitting the local legislature earlier this year, says that examples of racism in Hong Kong run the gamut from the local immigration department’s overly intrusive interrogations of Thai women visitors to the education department’s lackadaisical attitude towards schools for minorities who do not speak Chinese.

In a particularly troubling case uncovered earlier this year, a 17-year-old Chinese girl transiting through Hong Kong’s airport was detained, and then intimidated and abused during a 10-hour interrogation until she pleaded guilty to travelling with a false passport. (Although the vast majority of Hong Kong’s population was either born on the mainland or are children of parents who migrated from China, there is a widespread disdain and distrust of mainlanders in the city.) She was jailed for a few months before a court found that her passport was legal.

Hong Kong would seem an unlikely place for racism to raise its ugly head. People from the US, the Philippines and India have been part of the former British colony’s population since the nineteenth century. Its financial district today is filled with American, British, Indian and mainland Chinese investment bankers. Hate crimes against minorities are non-existent. “Immigrant communities don’t have excrement shoved through their post boxes. We don’t have racist political parties,” says John Dean, principal assistant secretary in the government’s bureau of home affairs.

Yet critics say that this relatively benign backdrop obscures more routine examples of racial discrimination.

The letters column in the South China Morning Post recently has been enlivened by a reader who complained that English-language teachers who are not white are routinely discriminated against when they apply for jobs, and another reader who bemoans that people will sit next to his Sri Lankan father on local buses only if all other seats are occupied. “There is no culture of fighting racism in Hong Kong,” says Mr Jacques.

Indeed, the Hong Kong government has consistently refused to legislate against racial discrimination in the workplace and commercial establishments, which puts it in breach of a United Nations convention.

The government position that laws on racial discrimination would lead to unnecessary lawsuits is not borne out by the relatively few lawsuits brought after laws against discrimination over gender and disability were enacted in the mid-1990s.

The government says that instead of legislation, it is concentrating on a two-pronged effort to educate the public to fight against discrimination and educate minorities to be more aware of their rights. This year, it will spend more than HKDollars 3.5m (USDollars 450,000) on the effort in a city of 7m.

“That’s a paltry amount. You can’t help thinking ‘you can’t be serious’,” says Ms Loh, who as a legislator repeatedly sought meetings over the past couple of years with top government officials to discuss her bill to enact laws against racial discrimination. Her calls were never returned.

– Rahul Jacob