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Off the agenda? Ethnic minorities feel shut out of Hong Kong’s political conversation

Philip Khan, a 54-year-old businessman, has few options in the fight against the injustices facing Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities – a cause he has pursued for years.

His family came to the city from what is now Pakistan more than a century ago. He said his two uncles defended the former British colony against the Japanese during the Second World War, with one killed and the other seriously injured. Born in Hong Kong, Khan grew up in a public housing estate and attended local schools, where he learned fluent Cantonese.

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Philip Khan. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

A high-school graduate, he worked for many companies in different industries – from textiles to plastic production – before running his own trading business in China. Having worked in Shanghai, Khan also picked up Mandarin skills on the job.

He was also among some 40,000 Hongkongers who sat in Victoria Park on May 20, 1989 – on a night when a No.8 typhoon signal was raised – in support of student protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Though the solidarity protests were associated with “Chinese patriotism” at the time, Khan was motivated by a sense of justice that goes beyond skin colour and state borders.

Khan considers himself a Hongkonger. He is hardworking, resilient, and a firm believer in equal opportunities.

But he experienced an identity crisis in 2012, when he found out he could not run in that year’s legislative election because he is not deemed a “Chinese national” under the law. Hong Kong’s election laws require geographical constituency candidates to be Chinese nationals with no right of abode outside China.

Khan, however, is among many Hongkongers of ethnic minority descent denied Hong Kong passports and the chance of naturalising as “Chinese nationals,” thereby stripped of their right to stand as a candidate in some elections.

“I feel like we are third-class citizens,” the businessman said, while referring to new immigrants from mainland China as “second-class citizens.”

Representative democracy

There are other ways ethnic minority residents in Hong Kong feel shut out of the political system. For one, many feel that politicians are insensitive to their concerns.

A Liberal Party protest against 'fake' refugees.

The pro-business Liberal Party alleges that Hong Kong faces a ‘fake refugees’ problem. Photo: Liberal Party, via Facebook.

Though pro-democracy, Khan is critical of the dismissive attitude of most pan-democrats towards ethnic minority issues.

“Hong Kong’s political parties are quite disappointing. The pan-democrats often say they don’t have enough resources to deal with ethnic minority issues,” he said, adding that they might also fear a public backlash in light of the rise of xenophobic sentiments against some ethnic groups.

“Meanwhile, the DAB [Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing party] has ample resources for ethnic minorities. They often hand out freebies like Ocean Park tickets, but they are just after our votes.”

He recalled a forum held last August, during which pro-democracy figures debated ethnic minority issues in front of a large crowd of non-Chinese residents. Two pro-Beijing speakers did not show up for the event. Khan remembered feeling the politicians were “out of touch” and had no idea what their ethnic minority constituents needed.

“They said there should be more schools serving only ethnic minorities. That is the complete opposite of what we have been asking for: we want integration, not more isolation,” he said.

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Philip Khan. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Khan is not alone in feeling that no politicians take his needs seriously. In a survey conducted last year by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service and the Hong Kong Christian Service, over 70 per cent of 476 ethnic-minority respondents felt their concerns were not addressed by any Legislative Council candidate. More than 90 per cent of them also did not read Chinese, and hence could not make informed decisions about the election.

Countering the mainstream perception that ethnic minorities are politically disengaged, Khan said: “It’s not that they don’t care about politics… It’s just that they don’t know what’s going on, or feel that there is no place for their voices.”

‘Systematic exclusion’

Social worker Ansah M. Malik, a fifth-generation Hongkonger of Pakistani descent, is one of those interested in current affairs but facing difficulties in navigating the political scene.

Though she understands Cantonese, Malik said her lack of Chinese reading skills rendered it “very hard” for her to decide whom to support in elections. “Recently it has become easier because I am more involved [in social organising] and know more people. But before, I had no idea [who the candidates were].”

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Ansah M. Malik. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

She said she used to pick candidates based on whether they published publicity materials in English, which she considered to be an indication that they bore in mind non-Chinese constituents.

Nowadays, Malik has access to a wider range of information thanks to her activist and social worker friends, many of them local Chinese. “Now my family and friends rely on me [for voting suggestions],” she said.

The language barrier is a common concern. In her 2015 report on the status of ethnic minorities, law professor Puja Kapai of the University of Hong Kong said the lack of Chinese language skills deprives ethnic minorities of access to information, thereby limiting their exercise of the right to full and equal participation in political life.

“We often hear that the real news is in the Chinese media,” Kapai told HKFP. “Non-Chinese people are often told that our understanding of what’s happening in politics is either delayed or distorted, because our access to the press is [limited].”

She also warned that limited access to information renders ethnic minorities susceptible to manipulation by political groups.

puja kapai

Puja Kapai. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

“In a way, there has been systematic exclusion from the political discourse,” she said.

Yet, even with his proficiency in the Chinese language, it has not been easy for Khan to participate within the system as an independent who is not affiliated with political parties or influential bodies.

For example, he applied last year to serve on government advisory bodies, after former chief secretary Carrie Lam expressed interest in expanding ethnic diversity on those bodies.

Khan never got a response, but a prominent think tank submitted a list of 16 ethnic minority people to Lam, who promised to give the list to the city’s bureaus for consideration.

“It is unclear what criteria the government uses in deciding which nominations to accept. It seems that it is about having connections with the right people,” he said.

Leadership race

Khan’s latest battlefield for political inclusion is the chief executive race, which takes place at the end of this month.

For the first time, Khan has a vote in the small-circle election. He was invited by his friends to form an alliance to run for a seat on the 1,200-member Election Committee, Hong Kong’s chief executive electoral college.

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Philip Khan (second right) with other alliance candidates representing the social welfare subsector in the leadership race. Photo: Together for Social Welfare, via Facebook.

After months of campaigning, Khan and 12 other members of the alliance were elected into the social welfare subsector of the committee last December.

Khan originally planned to use the position as leverage to get the candidates to meet with civil groups that focus on ethnic minority issues.

“But it turns out that they were only willing to meet with big, established organisations,” he said, adding that the candidates’ platforms on ethnic minority issues were “not concrete at all.”

john tsang unison

Candidate John Tsang met with ethnic minority residents at the invitation of NGO Unison. File Photo: John Tsang, via Facebook.

Professor Kapai said the exclusion of ethnic minorities from political discussion goes against the spirit of democracy. “Democracy is not about having the largest numbers; it is about having all voices adequately represented and looked after,” she said.

Instead, Kapai advocates an inclusive political framework, which she argues would empower minorities as well as cultivate compassion among the majority, ultimately leading to a more just society.

The fight continues

For now, Khan and Malik are going to keep fighting for inclusion.

As a social worker, Malik empowers ethnic minority communities by informing them of their rights and opportunities to participate in public life. Outside work hours, she organises events with her friends regularly to promote acceptance of ethnic diversity.

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Malik (centre) and her friends held a music event at the harbour last month. Photo: Minority Initiative Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Khan plans to apply for naturalisation as a Chinese national again. If his application succeeds, he may run in the legislative elections – “not to win but to have a platform for ethnic minority voices.”

He said he expects to see personal attacks if he joins the race, as he feels racial discrimination has become more rampant since the 1997 handover. “I have been told by random people on the street to get out of Hong Kong, saying it is a place of Chinese people.”

But the unfazed businessman said that was the exact reason why he felt the need five years ago to come under the spotlight and participate in the election.

“I wanted to remind people that there are Hongkongers of ethnic minority descent too and we don’t deserve negative labels,” he said.

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Off the agenda? Ethnic minorities feel shut out of Hong Kong's political conversation