- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

HONG KONG When the Hong Kong Legislative Council convened this month, it was faced with having to contend with rising unemployment, declining property values and a growing dengue-fever scare. It will also have to deal with a proposed sedition and treason law early next year.

What is not on the agenda, however, is a proposal to outlaw racial discrimination, despite substantial support for such legislation from the public and from the business community. This, critics say, is because the government is unwilling to discuss the issue, and without government support, no bill can be introduced.

"The government keeps saying the majority doesn't think there is a need for anti-discrimination legislation," said legislator Cyd Ho Sau-lan. "That is ridiculous."

A consultation paper issued quietly by the Home Affairs Bureau in August backs Mrs. Ho's contention. It showed overwhelming support by the Hong Kong business community for legislation against racial discrimination.

Christine W. Ng, a professor of business management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said that the government was surprised by the results detailed in the document.

"It was totally unexpected," she said. "People expected a lower percentage of business groups would say there is no race problem in Hong Kong." The responses from foreign and local groups, however, showed the opposite.

Of 25 responses to the government's query, 16 chambers of commerce and business associations were in favor of such legislation, while six local business groups either expressed reservations or opposition. The government, in its summary of the paper, stressed the local opposition.

Tse Cheung-Hing, spokesman for Home Affairs Bureau Secretary Patrick C.P. Ho, defended the way the government treated the negative responses. "We were only drawing a distinction between the groups," he said. "We attach importance to all views expressed in the paper."

Government critics, however, say that the wording reflects a mind-set that is against any move targeting racial discrimination.

"They just don't want to legislate on this," said Ravi Gidumal, a Hong Kong businessman and member of Hong Kong Against Race Discrimination (HARD).

The South China Morning Post reported this month that Hong Kong will address racial-discrimination issues in a submission to the United Nations next year as part of China's first report on cultural and economic rights.

The Hong Kong daily reported that local government officials did not say whether racial discrimination would be outlawed. In August last year, the U.N. race committee voiced fears that Hong Kong still lacked an anti-racism law and ordered the government to resolve the problem before the next report, due Jan. 28.

Mr. Ho said that his colleagues were still studying what to do. "We need to consider how to strike a proper balance among the different views and, therefore, the duration of the study has exceeded our target," he told legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing in a written reply quoted by the newspaper.

Mr. Ho said that the government would try to meet the U.N. requirement, but added that the date of submission would depend on China's schedule. Beijing has yet to tell Hong Kong when it will submit the report.

"In any case, the question of racial discrimination will be discussed in our report under another U.N. treaty [[-]] the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights," Mr. Ho was quoted as saying.

Even during British rule, the issue of racial discrimination had simmered in Hong Kong, where 95 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese. The remaining 5 percent are mostly people from the Asia-Pacific region, with about 1 percent from Western countries.

Ethnic Indians who the government estimates at 18,000, but who Mr. Gidumal says number closer to 30,000 make up less than 1 percent of the territory's population.

Before Britain's return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, minority groups in the region had campaigned for anti-discrimination laws. Mr. Gidumal was part of an unsuccessful effort to get British citizenship for Indian residents here. At the same time, he was advocating legislation to ban discrimination.

Since the colony's return to China as a Special Administrative Region, he has been working with other groups to renew the anti-discrimination fight.

To prove the need for such a law, Mr. Gidumal says, last year, he and his wife tried to rent an apartment in the same building where they lived at the time. The real estate agent, who was unaware they already lived there, told them that the landlord refused to rent to Indians because she wanted "a good-quality tenant."

An Indian investment banker who was transferred to Hong Kong after six years in New York City also was denied an apartment because the owners did not want to rent to Indians.

Also generating resentment is the Hong Kong government's ban on Indian athletes from families who have been longtime residents in the region from participating with its teams in international sporting events. At the same time, ethnic Chinese who are not Hong Kong residents have been allowed on its teams.

Mr. Gidumal contends that there is a long-standing pattern of discrimination that only legislation can address. The government calls for education and more awareness of the issue.

Mr. Gidumal stresses that what HARD and its allies seek is a ban on discrimination. "We are not asking for affirmative action or special treatment," he said.

Responding to demands to act against racial discrimination, the government created the Race Relations Unit shortly after the Home Affairs Bureau issued its consultation paper. A special committee of community leaders, including a member of HARD, supervises the unit.

The government, meanwhile, has not closed the door on introducing legislation. "We need to study all views," Mr. Tse said. "We are keeping an open mind and are not ruling out anything."

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