HK faces hurdles to outlaw 'locust' bias

Updated: 2014-03-31 08:46

By Kahon Chan in Hong Kong (China Daily)

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Verbal abuse targeted at tourists from the Chinese mainland, including use of the derogatory term "locust", has prompted Hong Kong's anti-discrimination watchdog to consider how to close a legal loophole and punish those who insult members of their own ethnicity.

But while the move was broadly welcomed, legal experts warned of obstacles.

The move follows an incident on Feb 17 on Hong Kong's Canton Road.

The road, a major tourist and shopping thoroughfare in western Tsim Sha Tsui, was the site of a netizen-organized gathering on Feb 16 to "drive the 'locusts' out".

Passers-by who looked like mainland tourists were verbally abused and called "locusts", and shoppers had to seek shelter in shops along the road.

The incident elicited widespread criticism in Hong Kong and Beijing. On March 6, National People's Congress Standing Committee Chairman Zhang Dejiang told deputies from Hong Kong that the event had made Hong Kong people look "ungracious".

Hong Kong law, as it stands, states that the five-year-old Race Discrimination Ordinance covers those who insult or discriminate against people of a different ethnicity.

People breach the law if they "incite hatred toward, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of" members of a class of persons on the grounds of "race" through any form of public communication.

A "racial group" is classified as any group of persons defined by reference to an identifiable "national origin".

Inflammatory comments targeting people from the Chinese mainland often appear on Hong Kong online discussions.

The use of the word "locust" is not exclusive to Hong Kong. A Shanxi-born student was called a "locust" when she tried to take the college entrance exam in Shanghai in 2012. Even the Beijing subway used the word on its micro blog in November to describe litterbugs.

The Equal Opportunities Commission, the statutory body that enforces the city's anti-discrimination laws, is set to invite public feedback on different legal options.

One option, as suggested by a spokesperson of the commission, is to redefine "race" in the Race Discrimination Ordinance to specifically mention discrimination against people based on geography.

While it appears as simple as taking out a couple of clauses and introducing new ones, Eric Cheung Tat-ming, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said such a move might require overhauling the law.

Cheung believes education can play a key factor.

"If a person swears at others for no reason, shame on them, but do we outlaw this behavior?"

Patrick Ho Chi-ping, Hong Kong's secretary for home affairs from 2002 to 2007, was in charge of the Race Discrimination Ordinance legislation when the bill was submitted to the Hong Kong legislature. He also dismissed the need to have people from the Chinese mainland covered by the law.

To respond with a new law would be an overreaction, Ho said. "It is merely a matter of ethical conduct. It is not a question of discrimination," he added.

Cheung agrees but also believes there is a strong case to provide better protection to new arrivals in the city, especially relatives of Hong Kong residents who are granted a "one-way permit" to settle in the city for reunion purposes.

This proposal is nothing new. New arrivals were excluded in the early draft of the Race Discrimination Ordinance, as the government considered Chinese immigrants in Hong Kong a "social group" and bias against them was not "racist".

Almost a decade later, Ho still echoes this view. "The racial law has nothing to do with new arrivals," he said. "Their social identity as a new arrival will eventually change. ... Are 'old' arrivals open to discrimination?"

The Society for Community Organization repeated its call for better legislation at a meeting with the commission in August. It plans to stage a rally later this month to push for it.

Human rights lawyer Chong Yiu-kwong said if society reaches a consensus that discrimination against new arrivals is severe enough that legal protection is necessary, technical hurdles would not be impossible to overcome.