Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor

Chris Patten, Racial Discrimination and Hong Kong's Indian Community

When he visited Hong Kong earlier this year Prime Minister John Major announced that he saw the present Governor of Hong Kong, former Minister and MP for Bath Chris Patten, as a strong candidate to succeed him as Prime Minister in due course. Mr. Patten will be the last Governor of Hong Kong before it is handed over to China on 30 June 1997.

If Mr. Patten becomes a candidate for Prime Minister, Asian voters in the United Kingdom may wish to scrutinise his record on race relations matters and matters affecting the well-being and security of Hong Kong's Indian community during his time as Hong Kong Governor.

Hong Kong has an old-established South Asian community, numbering about 20,000 people. Many of its members were born in Hong Kong, speak the local language, Cantonese, and have families who have lived in Hong Kong for generations. Their ancestors came from India or from what are now Pakistan or Bangladesh as soldiers or traders in the days of the British Empire. Many -- at least 3000 -- are not entitled to any nationality other than that of British Dependent Territories Citizens as citizens of Hong Kong.

It is quite unclear what future this community has in Hong Kong under Chinese rule. Chinese nationality law is overtly racist. It provides for Chinese nationality to be granted to people who are ethnically Chinese, or belong to a recognised ethnic minority. Neither Europeans nor people whose ancestors originated from the Indian sub-continent are recognised as an ethnic minority. It appears that Chinese nationality will not be available to Hong Kong's citizens of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent.

Hong Kong's own immigration law follows China's law and likewise adopts racist classifications. It states that persons have the right of abode in Hong Kong if they are "wholly or partly of Chinese race and have lived in Hong Kong for 7 years" or if they are British Dependent Territories Citizens (BDTCs) -- that is holders of a British passport which gives them the right to live in Hong Kong but no right to live in Britain.

After June next year there will be no more passports issued for BDTCs based on Hong Kong residence. Hong Kong people who hold BDTC passports will be allowed to hold British National Overseas (BNO) passports. These ;will not give any right to live in the UK. Nor will they give any right of abode in Hong Kong. China's position on whether such people will be allowed to remain in their home city is unclear, with conflicting statements by the Chinese authorities.

For several years the South Asian community in Hong Kong has been pressing the British and Hong Kong Governments to grant full British citizenship to its members, in view of the uncertainty about their future. This Britain has consistently refused to do. Mr. Major during his visit to Hong Kong said that if the Indian community came under pressure to leave Hong Kong after the handover Britain would permit them to enter. What amounts to pressure remains vague, and this half-hearted commitment is a very different matter from the security of British nationality. Despite requests for clarification of what this commitment means there appears to be no prospect of any further movement on this issue during the remainder of Mr. Patten's governorship.

Another change which would help the Indian community in Hong Kong would be if Hong Kong outlawed racial discrimination. Unlike in Britain and most advanced countries, racial discrimination is not illegal in Hong Kong.

As the law stands now the only restrictions on racial discrimination in Hong Kong apply to Government, and do not even apply to the most senior government jobs, which are to be reserved for people of "Chinese nationality" under the arrangements for the handover to China. One able senior civil servant with an Indian background is having to leave the civil service because he has no prospect of further promotion because of his race.

In the private sector in Hong Kong a person can quite legally be refused a job or sacked or refused a bank loan, or refused entry to a school, simply because they are Indian (or because they are Chinese, or European).

Last year a liberal member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Hong Kong's nearest equivalent to Parliament), Ms. Anna Wu, introduced a Bill to outlaw most forms of discrimination including racial discrimination, sex discrimination and discrimination on grounds of disability. Mr. Patten's administration fought this bill ferociously, with personal attacks on Ms. Wu, and eventually succeeded in defeating it, with the help of the most conservative elements in the council, by offering as a compromise a limited bill against sex discrimination only. This has proved to be a trick, as it was passed into law, but a year later has still not been brought into force nor any firm start date announced.

This year another member of the Legislative Council, Elizabeth Wong, has again tried to introduce a bill to outlaw racial discrimination. The Patten administration has again blocked the bill, manipulating the procedural rules to prevent it even being debated.

The Patten administration continually pays lip service to a supposed opposition to racial discrimination, but its actions show that it is in reality bitterly opposed to any effective measure to stop it happening. How far this policy reflects Patten's true views and how far the policy is driven by others with Patten simply lacking the will or the determination to change it is difficult to say, but in either case it is unforgivable conduct on the part of someone who aspires to be the Prime Minister of a multiracial society.

1996/1997 (c) Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor