Supporting Article

Ethnic Relations in China with Special Reference to Its Hong Kong Special Administrative Region


In China since the founding of the republic in 1912, equality among various ethnic groups has been a cornerstone of government policy in line with multi-ethnicity of its people.[1] The policy for harmony among its 56 ethnic groups in the country has since been upheld during the past century. The late Professor Xiaotong Fei’s (費孝通) famous line, “Chinese people (中華民族 Zhonghua minzu) are one body comprised of multi-ethnic groups (多元一體 duoyuan yiti),” nicely sums up the unique feature of multiethnic Chinese people.[2] Indeed, his frequently quoted maxim on harmony among peoples in a globalized world testifies to the Chinese ideal of ethnic harmony.[3]

Ways to Achieve Ethnic Harmony in China

In practice, however, there have been unrest and even disturbances relating to ethnic groups due to various reasons. For instance, in recent years we saw serious ethnic riots in Xizang (Tibet) and Xinjiang, two autonomous regions of China. In suggesting a solution, it is advocated that “Socialist harmonious society, featuring democracy and the rule of law, fairness and justice, honesty and benevolence, vigor and zeal, stability and orderliness, harmony between man and nature, shared as fundamental interests by all ethnic groups, is the common goal across China. Promoting social harmony is the sure way in resolving ethnic conflicts and achieving progress of ethnic harmony. We should therefore adopt a set of prudent laws and equally sound system in pursuing the noble goal while minimizing negative effects caused by mishandling of ethnic issues.”[4]

Since 1979, with implementation of the reform and opening-up policy, ethnic migrant workers have continuously moved to cities seeking employment there, partly due to the gap between urban and rural areas as indicated in the table below. Subsequently, unsatisfactory, and at times tense, ethnic relations have since occurred. Partly due to local officials’ insensitivity to ethnic minorities’ social customs and religious beliefs, the migrant workers, unfamiliar with urban life, have been subject to discrimination. In resolving the problem it has been suggested that urban life should be enhanced by improving the mechanisms of social management and public services.[5] Specific areas for improvement proposed include sustainable development of the economy and society of ethnic minorities’ regions, wide participation in local government by ethnic minorities, upholding the autonomy of ethnic regions, handling ethnic affairs through the rule of law, promoting ethnic minorities’ greater sense of belonging through cultural integrationespecially those in the frontier regionsand cultivation of national identity.[6]

Per Capita Income of Five Ethnic Autonomous Regions as Compared with the Nationwide Average in 2005[7]

Index Nationwide Xizang Xinjiang Inner Mongolia Guangxi Ningxia
Urban Areas  10,493 8,411 8,100 9,137 8,916.8 8,809.6
Rural Areas 3,255 2,078 2,482 2,989 2,494.7 2,509

Note: Amounts are in RMB

It is also aptly pointed out that ethnic relations are about the interests of all parties concerned. Harmonious ethnic relations and social harmony may be reached through modern transformation of traditional culture of ethnic minorities and its diverse development.[8] In addition to ethnic equality, social equity has been stressed as “the significant precondition for the harmonious development of ethnic relations.”[9] Indeed, ethnic harmony can only be realized with equality among all ethnic groups, acceleration of economic development and social prosperity for ethnic minorities, mutual understanding, respect for each other, toleration, cultivation of sincerity and trust towards one another in promoting national identity.[10] The need for improving ethnic minorities’ livelihood and employment, respecting their life style, cultural and social customs and religious beliefs is also stressed.[11]

It may be concluded from the above that the Chinese academics have been aware of factors causing potential social instability relating to ethnic relations, especially uneven development of the economy between the coastal east, the region most benefited by the past three decades of reform and opening-up policy, and the hinterland west, where ethnic minorities are mostly concentrated.

The Case of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

Since the mid-nineteenth century, Hong Kong has been home to ethnic Chinese (comprising ninety-five percent of Hong Kong’s population) and other ethnic groups including Caucasians, peoples of South Asian ethnic origins and others. Together, other ethnic groups constitute the remaining five percent of the population (342,198 persons).[12] Following is a survey of the situation of Hong Kong’s other ethnic groups, with special reference to those of South Asian origins including mainly Indians, Pakistanis and Nepalese.

Though dubbed Asia’s world city, Hong Kong has seen its ethnic minorities under various difficulties arising from their respective ethnic origins. They suffer from language barriers, racism, and structural discrimination with regards to education, employment and access to public services.[13] Studies have also found that nearly sixty percent of respondents to attend job interviews were rejected due to low Chinese proficiency (58.7%) and thirty percent were rejected due to their race. Furthermore, studies found that over forty percent of respondents received unequal treatment compared with local Chinese such as lower salary and being prohibited promotion opportunities.[14] According to the 2006 Hong Kong census, 75.4% of the ethnic minorities workers engaged in elementary occupations such as construction workers and security guards compared to 18.8% of the Hong Kong overall figure. Nearly forty percent were unemployed and the average unemployment period sustained was for eight months.[15]

With regard to the structural discrimination faced by ethnic minority residents in Hong Kong, the Race Discrimination Ordinance was finally enacted and has been in operation since July 10, 2009 to protect ethnic minority residents against discrimination, harassment and vilification on the grounds of their race. The scope of protection includes employment, education, provision of goods and eligibility to vote, among others.[16]

Education of Hong Kong Ethnic South Asian Children

Ethnic South Asian children usually attend public schools where Chinese children also attend, receiving the free nine-year education provided by the government. However, the schools’ teaching medium is mainly Cantonese, a local southern Chinese dialect and Hong Kong’s most popularly spoken language of daily use. Due to language barriers, prior to September 2004, schools seldom admitted ethnic South Asian children. Since then, according to government stipulations, all schools must admit children regardless of their ethnicities. Parents of South Asian children usually select those schools enrolling a significant number of pupils of ethnic minorities, known as “designated schools.” Children of ethnic minorities constitute ninety percent of these schools’ student population. Tailor-made, school-based curricula have become available for these children, and with an annual special subsidy of HK$300,000 from the government, for a maximum of three consecutive years, schools may engage teaching assistants of South Asian descent to facilitate classroom teaching and better liaison between the school and parents. In 1998, there were four “designated schools,” two elementary and two secondary. By 2009, the number of “designated schools” had risen to twenty-two including sixteen elementary and six secondary.

Ethnic South Asian Pupils in Need of Further Support

There has been marked progress with regards to support for ethnic South Asian pupils Moreover, in 2008 significant changes occurred thus contributing to a more equal situation in education and employment sectors for ethnic minority communities. For instance, General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) Chinese qualification is accepted as an alternative Chinese language qualification for admission into tertiary institutions. The same GCSE Chinese qualification is also accepted to apply for those civil service posts not requiring a baccalaureate. Flexibility has also been adopted by tertiary institutions and potential employers with regards to the requirement of Chinese language proficiency. A resource kit has also been provided for parents of ethnic South Asian pupils. Finally, in January 2008, the curriculum guide for the Chinese language subject was published.

On the other hand, publishers are still unwilling to produce teaching materials catering to the needs of ethnic South Asian pupils due to the relatively small number of potential users (8,855). There is no test for Chinese as a second language, and ethnic South Asian pupils compete with their ethnic Chinese counterparts when they take the Chinese language tests during the third, sixth and ninth grades.[17] There is almost no parental support for South Asian children learning Chinese at home. In Hong Kong, ethnic South Asian people, usually relying on their own ethnic kinsmen for community support, and ethnic Chinese, with whom the former seldom come into contact in their daily lives, seemingly live in two different worlds.

Hong Kong NGOs Caring for the Welfare of South Asian People

NGOs including the Hong Kong Christian Service, the Hong Kong Unison, and Caritas Hong Kong, among others, have been offering much needed assistance for ethnic South Asian communities. Objectives of such programs include:

  1. To offer essential support and equip South Asians with necessary living skills and knowledge for their better adjustment in Hong Kong.
  2. To offer one-stop service to facilitate South Asians in knowing and accessing necessary social services and resources.
  3. To develop the capacity of South Asians for their sustainable growth as well as motivating them to contribute their strengths to the community.
  4. To facilitate self-help and mutual support among people of the South Asian communities as well as with the local Chinese community.
  5. To promote social inclusion between the South Asians and the local Chinese people by enhancing mutual understanding and facilitating direct interaction.[18]

Recently, the global financial tsunami has caused even greater economic hardship to ethnic South Asians in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Christian Service recently conducted a survey gauging this tsunami’s impact on South Asians while searching for remedies to lighten their economic burden.[19] Thanks to NGOs like the Hong Kong Christian Service and similar ones, with their timely assistance, South Asian people have begun to better adapt to society making their inclusion into the larger community easier and smoother.

Yee-cheung Lau and Che-ying Kwan are serving at the Alliance Bible Seminary in Hong Kong and at the Hong Kong Institute of Education respectively.


  1. ^ The principle of ethnic harmony was evidenced by Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s proclamation of “the republic comprising five major ethnic groups (Han  漢, Man 滿, Mongolian 蒙, Hui 回 and Zang 藏” (五族共和 wuzu gonghe).
  2. ^ Xiaotong Fei 費孝通, Zhonghua minzu suoyuan yiti de geju (The Framework of the Chinese Nation as One Body Constituted by Multi-Ethnic Groups 中華民族多元一體的格局). Beijing: Joint Publisher, 1999.
  3. ^ The Chinese original is as follows, “Ge-mei-qi-mei, mei ren-zhi-mei, mei-mei yu-gong, tian-xia da-tong 各美其美, 美人之美, 美美與共, 天下大同” It means “Different peoples cherish their respective goodness, and appreciate one another’s goodness among various peoples, when all the goodness comes together, the world becomes one unity.” Xiaotong Fei, Xue-shu zi-shu yu fan-si:Fei Xiaotong xueshu wenji (Scholarship and Reflection: Xiaotong Fei’s Academic Collection[M] 學術自述與反思:費孝通學術文 集 [M]). Beijing: Joint Publisher, 1996.
  4. ^ Guan Guixia , “Woguo minzu guanxi fazhan jiben taishi tanjiu 我國民族關係發展基本 態勢探究” (“A study on basic trends of development of ethnic relationship in our country”), Journal of the Central Institute of Socialism 中央 社會主義學院學報, no. 6 (Dec. 2008), pp.71-71.
  5. ^ Chen Le-qi  陳樂齊, “Woguo chengshi minzu guanxi wenti jiqi duice yanjiu 我國城市民 族關係問題及其對策研究”(“Relationship among Urban Nationalities in China and Countermeasure against It,”) Journal of South-Central University for Nationalities, Vol. 26, No. 5 (Sep. 2006), pp.18-24; Tang Duo-xian, 湯奪先 “Shilun chengshi shaoshu minzu liudong renkou wenti yu chengshi minzu guanxi 試論城市少數民族流動人口問題與城市民 族關係”(“On mobile population of ethnic minorities and ethnic relations in the urban areas”), Heilongjiang Minzu Journal (Bimonthly) 黑龍江 民族叢刊 , No. 1, 2008, pp.24-30.
  6. ^ Shen Gui-ping , “Hexie shehui jianshezhong de minzu guanxi jiqi fazhanqushi 和諧 社會建設中的民族關係及其發展趨勢 (“Ethnic Relations and Its Developing Trend in Construction of a Harmonious Society”), Journal of South-Central University for Nationalities, 中央社 會主義學院學報 No. 4 (Aug. 2009), pp.76-79.
  7. ^ Yan Qing 嚴慶, “Shehui zhuanxing guanjianqi zhong de shehui gongping yu minzu guanxi 社會轉型關鍵期中的社會公平與民族關係” (“Social Equity and Ethnic Relations in the Key Period of Social Transformation”), Journal of Hubei Institutes for Nationalities (Philosophy and Social Sciences)(湖北民族學院學報(哲學社會科學版), No. 2, 2008, pp.135-140. 
  8. ^ Tang Zhijun 唐志君, “Hexie shehui shiyuzhong de minzu guanxi wenti xinlun 和諧社會視 域中的民族關係問題新論” (“A new thesis on ethnic relations from the perspective of a harmonious society”), Xueshu luntan 學術論壇 Academic Forum, No. 2, 2007, pp.67-71. 
  9. ^ Yan Qing 嚴慶, “Shehui zhuanxing guanjianqi zhong de shehui gongping yu minzu guanxi 社會轉型關鍵期中的社會公平與民族關係” (“Social Equity and Ethnic Relations in the Key Period of Social Transformation”), Journal of Hubei Institutes for Nationalities (Philosophy and Social Sciences) (湖北民族學院學報(哲學社會 科學版), No. 2, 2008, pp.135-140. 
  10. ^ Tang Xianqiu唐賢秋, “Xinren: goujian hexie minzu guanxi de shehui jichu 信任:構建和 諧民族關係的社會基礎” (“Trust as the Social Base for Constructing Harmonious Ethnic Relations”), 廣西民族研究 Guangxi Ethnic Studies, No. 2, 2006, pp.6-12. 
  11. ^ Wang Zongli & Ju Shengliang 王宗禮、 巨生良, “Quyu fazhan bupinghengxia yingxiang minzu guanxi de xin yinsu 區域發展不平衡背景 下影響民族關係的新因素”  (“The new factors influencing ethnic relations under imbalanced regional development”), Nationalities Research in Qinghai (Social Sciences), Vol. 18, No. 4 (Oct. 2007), pp.38-42.
  12. ^  These are comprised domestic helpers Filipinos (32.9%) and Indonesians (25.7%), Caucasians (10.6%), Indians (6.0%), mixed (5.3%), Nepalese (4.7%), Japanese (3.9%), Thais (3.5%), Pakistanis (3.2%), other Asians (2.3%), Koreans (1.4%) and others (0.6%). See Table 105 of the 2006 Census & Statistics Department Report, Population By-census Office, Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, People’s Republic of China. 
  13. ^ According to the Hong Kong 2006 population by-census, 46.7% of ethnic minorities aged five and over, reported English was most commonly spoken at home while only 32.4% reported that Cantonese was most commonly spoken at home. It was found that language problems were the most common difficulty. The Home Affairs Bureau and the Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong SAR Government, “Sample survey of the characteristics of the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong,” January 2000. http://www. papers/59e01.pdf (accessed: January 14, 2010). 
  14. ^ Working Group of the Social Integration Project for Ethnic Minority People in Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong and Unison Hong Kong, A Research Report on the Employment Situation of South Asian People in Hong Kong—Executive Summary. Hong Kong: Working Group of the Social Integration Project for Ethnic Minority People in Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Unison, 2003.
  15. ^ Ibid.
  16. ^ Equal Opportunities Commission, EOC News, Issue 51 (November 2009), p. 8. 
  17. ^ In this respect Hong Kong lags behind both the Mainland and Taiwan where pertinent materials for teaching the Chinese language as a second language have already been produced. 
  18. ^  Ibid. Due to difficulties encountered in the society at large, ethnic South Asian youth have higher rates of school-dropout and drug abuse. NGOs, like the Hong Kong Christian Service, provide, among other timely assistances, interpretation support during court proceedings. 
  19. ^  One of the authors of this article, Yeecheung Lau,,attended the press release on the findings of the survey that was presented by the Hong Kong Christian Service. It was conducted in Tsimshatsui of Kowloon, Hong Kong on January 10, 2010.

Image credit: Hong Kong #sunset #iPhoneography #HK #HongKong #iPhone #panorama by Pasu Au Yeung, on Flickr 

Share to Social Media