Panel on Home Affairs
Meeting on 27 July 1998
On 18 June 1997, we briefed the then Legislative Council on the outcome of a consultation exercise on racial discrimination. We also informed the Council how we proposed enhancing equal opportunities for all races. Essentially, that entailed addressing the issues through educational and administrative measures but not, at least for the time being, through legislation. However, we undertook to revisit the issue in a year's time. The purpose of this paper is to update members on developments since then and to indicate how we see the way forward.
2. In February 1997, we completed a "desk study" of this form of discrimination and published our findings in a consultative document. Some 53,000 copies (39,000 in Chinese, 14,000 in English) were distributed. The public were invited to comment by 30 April 1997. We received 238 submissions, of which 197 (83%) considered that legislation against racial discrimination was unnecessary or undesirable, at least at that stage. But nearly all favoured non-legislative measures to address the issue, particularly public education.
3. We expressed the view that, even though ours was a racially homogeneous society, racially discriminatory attitudes probably did exist. There was, however, no evidence that discriminatory acts were prevalent, in the sense of being frequent or widespread. The feedback we had received from the Consuls General and the relatively small number of submissions in response to the consultation exercise (compared with about 10,000 in response to the exercises on family status and sexuality) lent support to the view, expressed in the majority of the submissions, that racial discrimination was not of significant concern in Hong Kong.
4. We pointed out that legislation could not outlaw discriminatory attitudes; it could only outlaw discriminatory acts. Nearly all the instances that respondents had adduced as "evidence" of discrimination concerned Government policies . Those policies were justified on public interest grounds unrelated to race, having regard to the circumstances of our community. If they were racially discriminatory and not justified, most of them could have been challenged in court and would have been rendered unlawful by the Bill of Rights Ordinance.
5. With these things in mind, we took the view that it would not then be opportune to introduce legislation to outlaw racial discrimination between private persons, groups, or organisations. As discriminatory acts were not prevalent, the benefits of such legislation would be limited. On the other hand, introducing legislation against the view of the majority respondents might be counter-productive, in that it might accentuate racial differences in the community, so engendering resentment on the part of majority against the minorities. It would also call into question the Government's sincerity in conducting the consultation if legislation were enacted soon after the majority of respondents had expressed opinions against it. Nevertheless, we undertook to review the need and desirability for legislation in a year's time.
6. To address the issue, we proposed -
Progress since June 1997
- enhanced public education efforts to promote equal opportunities, with increased emphasis on racial equality;
- making discriminatory attitudes or acts against new arrivals and foreign workers a target of our public education programme. We would also consider what more could and should be done to make members of these groups more aware of their rights and responsibilities and to help them integrate into our community; and
- keeping under regular review the policies cited in footnote (1) and taking more proactive steps to explain to the public why they were necessary. The aim was to address the misconception that the policies were racially discriminatory.
7. Taking the three proposals seriatim -
Way forward: revisiting the issue
- public education: in March this year, the theme of racial discrimination featured prominently in a special television variety show on equal opportunities, sponsored jointly by the Equal Opportunities Commission, TVB, and the Government. In May, after extensive consultation with employers�associations and relevant NGOs, we published the "Code of Practice Against Discrimination in Employment on the Ground of Race", together with the complementary leaflet "Equal Opportunities: Race". Aditionally, in the same month, we launched a television API - with complementary posters - appealing to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have also sponsored a funding scheme to encourage and enable community organisations to organise projects or services that drive home the message of equal opportunities, particularly in this area, and support the needs of the relevant minorities;
- new arrivals and foreign workers: representatives of both groups featured in the API and the posters. Organisations that specialise in looking after their needs formed the majority of beneficiaries under the funding scheme. The Coordinating Committee on New Arrival Services remains very active. A Steering Committee chaired by SHA in person was recently established to oversee its work and to ensure that the delivery of services for new arrivals - whether by Government or by NGOs - receives sufficient funding. Inspired by the Co-ordinating Committee's service handbook for new arrivals, we have been working with organisations that look after the interests of foreign workers to produce a series of handbooks tailored to the needs of the different ethnic communities. This is an ambitious project that will entail adapting material to the needs of different cultural groups and translation into over half-a-dozen languages. Our pilot edition (the English edition of the Phillipino version) is being finalised with a view to publication in the early-Autumn. Other initiatives are being actively developed; and
- review and explanation of Government policies: the reports that we submit to the United Nations under the various human rights treaties provide excellent opportunities for bureaux to consider their policies afresh with a view to explaining them to an international readership, to the UN itself and, indeed, to the people of Hong Kong.
8. We remain convinced that, as a general principle, self-regulation is preferable to coercion. Our initiatives are intended to stimulate public awareness with a view to fostering a culture of greater understanding, tolerance, and mutual respect. Inevitably, it will take time for the processes of education and persuasion to take effect. We cannot realistically expect attitudes to change overnight. We shall continue our efforts to encourage people to discard discriminatory attitudes, whether in regard to race or to any other form of discrimination.
9. Additionally, and as a first step, we shall shortly organise meetings with relevant NGOs, representatives of minority groups and other community organisations. The aim will be to seek their views and to ascertain whether there has been any significant change in attitude since the 1997 consultations. Where there are specific examples of discrimination experienced by any particular minorities, we shall take them into account in considering the best way forward.
Home Affairs Bureau