Hong Kong — A specter is haunting Hong Kong. And it is not communism. It is the sight of undesirable women roaming the streets of this acclaimed world city. They exhibit specific physical attributes. First were the Filipino maids of dark complexion, three-hundred-thousand strong along with the Indonesians. Then came pregnant women from the mainland. Both are making unwanted claims on the good life which Hong Kongers seem to feel is their own and look determined to guard jealously.
The demands for residency status by foreign maids who toil day in and day out for this city’s rich and middle class alike are held up in court and regulatory tussles. The attacks on pregnant mainland women have just begun. Full-page advertisements can be found in major newspapers such as the Apple Daily calling the women “locusts” that must be driven out. The language deployed can only be called hysterical sectarian slurs. Such expressions are hardly acceptable in normal polite company, let alone being printed for Hong Kong’s much-touted “civil society.” However, the protests seem to be in line with public sentiments — and the advertisement is paid for by public donations. The politicians are responding. The SAR government is initiating rules to cap the number of nonresidents giving birth.
There is only one problem. The law. Yes, the much-cherished “rule of law” and the self-evident “human rights” it is supposed to protect. Hong Kong is a place held captive by an ideological narrative conceived and propagated by a few political and intellectual elites. It goes as follows: Hong Kong is superior to mainland China. It has rule of law; it respects human rights; its open market capitalism is among the freest economies in the world; it has a flourishing civil society and a free press; its people deserve a full democracy in which they vote on everything. And this enclave of modernity must be defended against the encroachments of an authoritarian and unsophisticated central government. Better yet, if the mainland people could overthrow its authoritarian regime the rest of China would be as good as Hong Kong — paradise on earth.
This narrative is now in full collision with the needs of the people of Hong Kong. What the people of Hong Kong are saying seem plainly sensible: If all the foreign maids who have worked here for more than seven years are granted residency as stipulated by law, and all the babies born by visiting mainland mothers are given the same status as those by Hong Kong mothers, the resulting economic and social burden would bankrupt the city.
But are these the same Hong Kong people who turn up by tens of thousands on every fourth of June to condemn Beijing on human rights? If so, why are they denying what seem to be the most basic human rights to hard-working maids, pregnant women, and the new-born? Indeed, these rights are protected by Hong Kong’s Basic Law and/or its common law legal system — both prized assets that the propagators of the Hong Kong narrative want to defend at all costs against Beijing’s interference.
Are all the annual candle-holders in Victoria Park saying that maids who meet legal requirements to be residents must be kept out just because they are Filipinos, pregnant women with full legal rights to enter Hong Kong must be segregated and mainlanders refused entry while other races are welcomed with open arms, mothers who happen to deliver when they are in Hong Kong must be denied health care just because they are mainlanders, and babies so born by actions of their parents must not be given the rights all Hong Kong people are entitled to?
In the same vein, could Hong Kong’s “free capitalist economy” deliver much benefit to its people without the myriad of favorable trade and financial benefits supplied by a not-so-free socialist mainland economy?
The “anti-locust” protestors are in effect calling for a change in the Basic Law. There is only one route to realizing such a change, and it leads to (guess where?) Beijing. Their advertisement is found in the media vanguard of the Hong Kong narrative, the Apple Daily. It is an irony worthy of a Shakespearean stage.
Perhaps it is high time for the people of Hong Kong and its elites to self-reflect. Is the law an abstract principle that exists above and beyond society, like the commandments received by Moses, or an organic part of society at the service of its people? Should politics be conducted based on ideological correctness or pragmatic functionality?
In a healthy and well-functioning polity, practical issues such as immigration can be deliberated and resolved in practical ways. But the state of Hong Kong is such that since 1997 an ideological narrative constructed by a few has been sold to the people of Hong Kong by means of demagoguery. Now the Hong Kong people are in an unenviable quandary: give up on a narrative that has been baked into their self-identity to protect the actual welfare of their society, or hold high that ideological banner and risk their way of life. To do both would be hypocrisy of the highest order.
When common sensibilities are held hostage by abstract ideology they find expressions in racial and sectarian extremism. Such is the nature of the “anti-locust” movement. Can such a people in such a state be entrusted with self-government?
Eric X. Li
Venture capitalist in Shanghai; Chairman, Chunqiu Institute
This piece was published in the South China Morning Post on Feb. 9, 2012.