Racism in Hong Kong: The Failure of Race Discrimination Ordinance in Educational Settings


Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

The introduction of Racial Discrimination Ordinance (RDO)

From 2014 to 2015, I was working as a visiting teacher at a Hong Kong-based non-profit organisation (NGO) named Integrated Service for Ethnic Minorities (YTM), Christian Action, teaching financially disadvantaged ethnic minority school-aged children languages, mathematics, and sciences. Many of my students were able to manage all but Chinese language subjects. Their very poor Chinese Cantonese proficiency, as I was told, was primarily due to the lack of Chinese language support at school and at home. Since Chinese language is a core subject in local education curriculum, irrespective of studying in English as a medium of instruction (EMI) or Chinese as a medium of instruction (CMI) local schools, all students, including those who are non-Chinese native, must pass every Chinese examination in order to promote to next grades. The lack of opportunities to study Chinese often discourages them from developing an interest in learning Chinese language and culture, where teachers at school usually saw their passive learning attitudes as indolent and scolded them in front of their peers. As a consequence, ethnic minority students were, to a large extent, further marginalised in Hong Kong’s education curriculum.

In order to combat any form of racial discrimination and develop racial and ethnic equality within the city, Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), a government-funded statutory body in Hong Kong, endeavoured to fight for the enactment of Racial Discrimination Ordinance (RDO), a legislation which was enforced in July 2009. The enforcement of RDO aims at sanctioning unlawful acts of discrimination against individuals on the ground of their races, for the purposes of developing racial and ethnic equalities within the city. In theory, RDO protects all ethnic groups in the course of education, employment and otherwise. As Crystal Yeung, Assistant Corporate Communications Manager at EOC, told me, as low as 14 cases of education-related racial discrimination were recorded between January 01, 2013 and October 31, 2018. However, an insignificant number of reported racial discrimination in educational setting does not necessarily demonstrate a success of the operation of RDO. This article rather presents how such discrimination continues to be an entrenched concern in today’s educational system, prompting the call for judicial review of RDO.

Rationale behind the discourse on education-related racial discrimination

Today’s racism can be more covert and virulent than in the past. Any unreported, subtle, insidious forms of racism in Hong Kong remain detrimental to the wellbeing of ethnic minorities. Rather than imposing threats of violence or physical attacks, today’s racism at school impedes students of, racially or otherwise, disadvantaged backgrounds from enjoying a fair share of educational opportunities for academic development. In Racism (2003), Robert Miles and Malcolm Brown refer racism as a set of prejudices, opinions and attitudes, or a set of exclusionary practices, that individuals or groups exercise on others, engendering any form of negativity towards the latter.

From 2006 to 2016, the number of ethnic minorities, including Filipino, Indian and Pakistani, residing in Hong Kong increased immensely by 70.8%, reaching a total of 584,383 inhabitants. The growth of minority populations was primarily a result of the influx of foreign domestic helpers working in Hong Kong. The growing minority populations within the city prompts the need to address educational inequalities encountered by minority school-aged children in further details.

In the long term, racial discrimination in the educational sphere can particularly jeopardise the socioeconomic wellbeing among minority populations. This is because educational inequalities can result in poor academic outcomes and fewer opportunities for social mobility among minority groups. For example, my former financially disadvantaged students at Christian Action need to receive a fairer share of educational opportunities, especially opportunities to learn Chinese. Otherwise, they would plausibly suffer from intergenerational immobility and intergenerational poverty due to their slim chance of social mobility.

Educational segregation by race

In order to promote the multicultural educational environment in Hong Kong, the system of designated schools – schools which were designated for ethnic minorities in primary and secondary education – was abolished in 2013. That being said, many former designated schools have continued to accept ethnic minority children to a disproportionate level. As a result, the majority of ethnic minority students have remained educationally segregated from mainstream schools. Here the mainstream education system offers more and better teaching resources and support for learning Chinese language and culture, as relative to former designated schools that partially focus on using minority languages, in lieu of Chinese, as a medium of instruction. Consequentially, the Chinese learning opportunities in former designated schools are limited. The abolishment of the designated school system, hence, fails to tackle racial discrimination encountered by ethnic minorities.

Racial discrimination for admissions

The Hong Kong Education Bureau argued the application of ethnic minority students for admissions to former designated schools was based on the free will of their parents. Additionally, according to Kindergarten Admission Policies and Attitudes Towards Non-Chinese Applicants, an internal document I obtained from ECO in 2018, some administrative staff in local, Chinese medium of instruction (CMI) kindergarten questioned why ethnic minority parents did not help their children find an international school when the latter inquired if English-medium teaching would be used at class. Although private international schools can be seen as an alternative option to educate ethnic minority children who possess unsatisfactory Chinese proficiency, the tuition fees, over HKD100,000 (approximate USD 12,745) per annum in most circumstances, at these school are usually unaffordable to many ethnic minority households. On contrary to disadvantaged ethnic minority students, locals in Hong Kong often deem international students as those whose families are well-off, enjoying more diverse opportunities to developing extra-curricular habits and possessing decent language skills, for example, English, Spanish and French skills. The Hong Kong Education Bureau and local schools simply shirk their responsibilities to provide a fairer share of educational opportunities and mobility for ethnic minority students to their parents without maximising their endeavours to implement racially and ethnically inclusive policies. Their irresponsible attitudes discourage minority children from gaining admissions into mainstream local schools. Subtle racial discrimination in Hong Kong’s education system continues to exist, where the enforcement of RDO fails to address such kind of discrimination in an effective manner.

The importance of raising public awareness 

The relevant local authorities have put a certain degree of legislative efforts on minimising racial discrimination in the educational setting in Hong Kong. Having said that, they fail to ensure the implementation of RDO. Ethnic minority children are still predominately excluded from the mainstream education system. Allowing the widespread racial discrimination in the educational sector significantly violates the principle of RDO. The aims of RDO cannot be truly fulfilled unless relevant authorities monitor and evaluate whether ethnic minority students are able to gain equal opportunities in local school admissions and enjoyment of learning facilities and resources.

On December 12, 2018, the first reading of the bill of proposed amendments to RDO was held. However, the reading only discussed very limited changes to the ordinance, including the expansion of the definition of racial and ethnical minorities. RDO has yet to discuss further arrangements of preventive policies of racial discrimination in the educational setting as well as inclusive policies to encourage the integration of minority students into mainstream schools. The disappointing, insufficient legislative and enforcement endeavours to help equalise educational opportunities in Hong Kong mark the failure of RDO, limiting the academic development of minority students and prompting the needs to formulate a new bill to discuss further amendments of RDO. EOC and relevant local non-governmental organisations, including Hong Kong Unison, have endeavoured to fight for equal opportunities among all students, irrespective of ethnicity. However, the lack of public awareness and cultural tolerance in the city often bar lawmakers from prioritising racial and ethnical equity over economic development. This, in part, explains why the implementation of RDO fails to attain racial and ethnical inclusiveness in the educational setting or otherwise. Calling for readings, and perhaps passing, of a bill of future amendments to RDO is contingent on building the necessary public awareness of racial and ethnical inclusion. Here public pressure is needed to propel further judicial reforms of RDO, alongside encouraging relevant governmental authorities to monitor the implementation of RDO, for the purposes of realising educational equity for all.

Jason Hung is a MSc Sociology candidate at London School of Economics and an affiliate student at King’s College London. He will be working as a non-degree visiting graduate student at University of Chicago in 2019 and worked as a visiting student researcher at University of California, Berkeley in 2018.

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