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. 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. Indeed, his frequently quoted maxim on harmony among peoples in a globalized world testifies to the Chinese ideal of ethnic harmony.
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.”
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. 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.
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. In addition to ethnic equality, social equity has been stressed as “the significant precondition for the harmonious development of ethnic relations.” 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. The need for improving ethnic minorities’ livelihood and employment, respecting their life style, cultural and social customs and religious beliefs is also stressed.
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). 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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:
- To offer essential support and equip South Asians with necessary living skills and knowledge for their better adjustment in Hong Kong.
- To offer one-stop service to facilitate South Asians in knowing and accessing necessary social services and resources.
- To develop the capacity of South Asians for their sustainable growth as well as motivating them to contribute their strengths to the community.
- To facilitate self-help and mutual support among people of the South Asian communities as well as with the local Chinese community.
- To promote social inclusion between the South Asians and the local Chinese people by enhancing mutual understanding and facilitating direct interaction.
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. 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.