Three and half years ago, eight Hong Kong tourists in Manila were killed when a gunman hijacked their bus and eventually opened fire before himself being killed. The Manila police had attempted a rescue operation but badly bungled it.
Since then there has been a constant drum roll of demands in Hong Kong for President Benigno S. Aquino III to apologize personally for this tragic incident and for the Philippines to pay compensation to the victims’ families as though the president and whole nation were somehow liable for the actions of one gunman.
The drumroll hit a crescendo this week when appointed chief executive C.Y. Leung attempted to use the APEC summit in Bali to further such demands in a meeting with Aquino. That itself was a display of arrogance. Hong Kong is only a member of APEC because of its independent economic status. On all other matters, Leung has all the standing of a major city mayor, with no right to make demands on the elected president of an independent nation of 90 million.
But with the Philippines best known in Hong Kong as the supplier of domestic helpers, Leung followed the local habit of treating all Filipinos – and other non-Chinese Asians deemed suitable only for domestic service – as serfs. In an attempt to court popularity in Hong Kong, Beijing added fuel to the issue by backing Leung’s demands. Aquino could have legitimately refused to discuss the issue, but did agree to some ministerial level talks.
To make matters worse, some local politicians chimed in with demands that Hong Kong stop the entry of helpers from the Philippines until Aquino had apologized and paid compensation. Chief among these advocates were legislators representing People Power, a party which purports to be liberal and democratic but is prone to thuggish behavior. Democratic Party legislator James To, usually known for demanding that Beijing keep its nose out of Hong Kong affairs, demanded firm action by Beijing to bring the Philippines to heel.
Only slightly better were editorials in supposedly responsible media. The South China Morning Post, for example, wrote: “There can be no forgetting [the tragedy] until demands have been met.”
Hong Kong attitudes were further displayed by media personnel who were deprived of their press passes for harassing Aquino in an open area, not at a press conference. The Indonesian hosts certainly overreacted and rightly earned a rebuke from the International Federation of Journalists. But some of the Hong Kong journalists showed signs of treating the president like a domestic helper, one shouting: “So you are ignoring the Hong Kong people, right?”
In dealings with President Xi Jinping and even Leung, the Hong Kong media mob was, others report, suitably polite.
The constant demands on the Philippines contrast with Hong Kong’s responses to other tragedies. For example, nine tourists were killed in a hot air balloon crash in Egypt which appears at least in part the result of inadequate government enforcement of safety regulations. Yet there has been no outcry from Hong Kong other than from the victims’ families.
In Hong Kong itself, 36 people, including one foreign passport holder, died in the sinking of a ferry. An official inquiry placed some blame for the deaths on the Marine Department’s failure to enforce boat construction and equipment rules. But there has been no sign of a personal apology from Leung, let alone an offer of compensation.
Hong Kong also forgets that in 2005 two Filipino tourists were stabbed to death by a local man in heavily policed Tiananmen Square – apparently because he thought they were Japanese. Did then President Hu Jintao ever offer an apology or compensation? Of course not. The Chinese state, quite rightly, could not take responsibility for the actions of a crazed individual. Nor should President Xi make a personal apology to the family of British businessman Neil Haywood, whose murder by the wife of then-Chongqing Governor Bo Xilai was initially covered up.
Scores of foreign visitors have been killed by gunmen in the US, where there are some 11,000 gun murders a year and campus shootouts are all too common. These are just accepted as a fact of life in the US. No one expects apologies from the President Obama, or compensation other than, possibly, through the courts by families alleging inadequate security. But somehow many Hong Kong Chinese seem to think that they are a different class of person, at least to “inferior” Asians, especially brown ones.
This attitude has been fostered by government officials in several ways. One has been to put the Philippines into the highest risk category for tourists – on a par with Syria. In practice large numbers ignore a warning which is vindictive nonsense. In Hong Kong, the government routinely fails to implement laws supposed to protect helpers, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, from exploitation and abuse. And it has deliberately suppressed helpers’ wages to increase the number of local households who feel a right to have a servant so they can keep up mortgage payments on outrageously expensive housing.
Hong Kong’s internationalist claims — “Asia’s World City” — suffered another blow this month with academics attacking the appointment of a British medical academic to be vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong. Rather than suggesting that better candidates should have been available, the attacks centered on the fact that the appointee, Peter Mathieson, was not Chinese and doesn’t speak Chinese. Given that HKU is an English-language university that is endeavoring to internationalize itself by taking more students both from the mainland and overseas, the ethnic bias of these attacks was plain. Some of the language used against him could be viewed as slanderous.
The appointment of a non-ethnic Chinese was certainly a surprise. Hong Kong has had a habit of appointing ethnic Chinese from the US and elsewhere to senior posts even when they have had no experience of Hong Kong or China or read Chinese. But the virulence of the ethnically-charged attack was shocking, particularly given that Mathieson had been chosen unanimously after a long selection process involving students as well as academics.
Thus full frontal racism has been on display as officials, media and politicians demand they be given special treatment by non-Chinese Asians.