HONG KONG—For Zab, Hong Kong has always been home. While the 25-year-old has roots in Pakistan, he was born, raised, educated, and now works in the city. This summer, Zab—who gave only his last name out of safety concerns—has been a cautious participant in several Hong Kong protests, standing out as one of the few brown faces among the protesters. After tear gas was fired during one rally, he ran into a police blockade as he attempted to flee. Trapped and struggling to breathe, he was terrified of being interrogated. But the police let him pass—a decision Zab suspects was related to his Pakistani ethnicity. “They probably thought I wasn’t a Hong Kong person,” he said.
This year’s protests are bringing Hong Kong’s ethnic tensions to the fore. After a mob assaulted commuters in Yuen Long train station in July, Nepali men in the neighborhood were abused by locals and accused of attacking civilians. Hong Kong’s railway corporation came under fire for reportedly planning a task force of former Gurkhas to enforce bylaws during the crisis because, in the words of a railway executive, “Nepalese do not understand Cantonese, [and] thus they will be less provoked.” Last month, when an assault on the pro-democracy leader Jimmy Sham left him lying in a pool of his own blood, local media claimed his attackers were South Asian without evidence.
Minority leaders rushed to publicly condemn the violence and support Sham—as well as privately urge community members to lie low in case of retaliations. Most recently, after police doused a mosque using water cannons with blue dye to clear a peaceful protest supporting ethnic minorities, demonstrators helped clean the mess and rallied around the community. In a moving show of solidarity, they organized a Thanksgiving gathering at Chungking Mansions, a local hub for ethnic minority workers and asylum-seekers.
Hong Kong’s identity crisis has been exacerbated in recent years. China’s authoritarian interventions have triggered a localist movement and imagined political community that sees itself as culturally, linguistically, and ideologically separate from mainland China. Since Hong Kong was handed to China by the British in 1997, those who identify as Hong Kongers grew from 35.9 percent to a record 52.9 percent this year, according to statistics from the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme. Among locals aged 18 to 29, the percentage jumped from 45.6 percent to 75 percent. The trend holds true for ethnic minority families. Older generations are more conservative and wary of politics, Zab explained. “Our families say we are minorities here and don’t have a say. [But] I consider myself a Hong Konger,” Zab said.
Ethnic minorities such as Zab have historically been either tokenized as a symbol of diversity or demonized as scapegoats for Hong Kong’s social problems. But in the current movement, they have become a powerful marker of inclusion—especially in contrast to an increasingly ethnonationalist China, where minority groups are facing linguistic exclusion and mass detention camps.
In Hong Kong, ethnic minorities are defined by the government as people of non-Chinese ethnicity. Yet only those who do not pass as white or Chinese are considered second-class citizens by mainstream society. In 2016, excluding foreign domestic workers, 263,593 people in Hong Kong—3.6 percent of the population—fell into this group. In contrast to the generally aging population and falling birth rate, between 2006 and 2016, the number of ethnic minorities aged 15 to 24 more than doubled, and those born in Hong Kong increased from 24.5 percent to 30.9 percent.
Hong Kong has always been multicultural—not just English and Chinese but an imperial outpost drawing its population from across the British Empire. The South Asian community can be traced to the 1840s, when it defended Hong Kong as soldiers and worked alongside Eurasians as intermediaries between Chinese and Europeans. More than 1,000 Indian soldiers were killed or injured while protecting Hong Kong in the 1941 Japanese invasion. Star Ferry, Hong Kong’s main passenger ferry service, was founded by an Indian Parsi baker.
The British made heavy use of Gurkha soldiers, who helped suppress the 1900 Boxer Rebellion and established today’s Nepali community. Following World War II, inexpensive laborers from the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries began migrating to Hong Kong to work as foreign domestic workers, supporting an emerging Chinese middle class. In the 1970s, Vietnamese refugees joined them.
Despite such crucial contributions, ethnic minorities remain systematically marginalized. Entrenched language barriers, racial profiling, and poverty remain barriers to integration. Many have long condemned the government’s failure to teach local languages to non-Chinese speakers. Until 2004, children who lacked Chinese proficiency but could not afford international schools were directed toward government institutions targeting working-class minorities, which came with social stigma. Local media and conservative groups characterized them as criminals during a sweeping anti-refugee campaign blaming asylum-seekers for stretching local resources.
While such students can now apply to other institutions, schools have independent selection criteria and are not required to provide specialized curriculum for language proficiency. A 2016 study found that less than 20 percent of jobs advertised online catered to non-Chinese speakers. Nearly one-fifth of ethnic minorities also live below the poverty line, and the poverty rate rose from 15.8 percent to 19.4 percent between 2011 and 2016.
The protest movement is hardly free of discrimination itself. When the anti-extradition protests first erupted, 29-year-old Yasir Naveed, who proudly identifies as a Hong Konger, was galvanized. Donning a white shirt with the rest of the crowd, he marched in the first rally with his 72-year-old father and 4-year-old nephew—a move to express multigenerational support. “My father is part of the senior citizens who built this city,” said Naveed, who is ethnically Pakistani. “And the future is our nephew.”
Early on, there were already rumors that ethnic minorities were being hired to attack protesters. One day, Naveed received a message from Han Chinese protesters asking him to check the grammar on an Urdu text. It was an appeal from demonstrators asking ethnic minorities not to “accept bribes” to “beat up” protesters. Naveed was stunned. “I was so offended,” he said. He responded saying the message was grammatically correct but ethically wrong. “Did they think we are sellouts? That we’re so hungry and needy for money that a party can buy us?”
The simultaneous co-option and rejection of minorities also occurred in the 2014 Umbrella Movement and 2012 anti-national education protests. Minorities were celebrated by protesters as proof of local inclusion, but their interests were subsumed during broader political discussions, which were largely publicized and conducted solely through Cantonese, with excursions into Mandarin.
Paul O’Connor of Lingnan University called the treatment of ethnic minorities a missed opportunity. “They hold true opportunity for Hong Kong to redistinguish itself as this ‘one country, two systems’ territory because China doesn’t have the history that Hong Kong has in terms of this multicultural heritage,” O’Connor said. “Instead, their interests are being co-opted by the broader fight about Hong Kong identity and then dropped.”
In fact, Raees Baig, an assistant professor of social work at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said pro-Beijing parties such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong have more successfully engaged and advocated for ethnic minorities, through establishing outreach centers and English-language materials about government services.
That has left many community leaders carefully neutral. Adeel Malik, the chairperson of the Muslim Council of Hong Kong, exercised caution at present. He strongly condemned the recent violence by all parties, which he said has caused some to consider leaving Hong Kong. “If any of our community members get involved and anything turns into a riot, sadly it can be easy to stereotype the whole community,” Malik said. Arief Wahyudi, a 49-year-old local of Indonesian descent who has lived in Hong Kong for two decades, echoed his sentiments. “Violence will only fuel violence,” he said. “That’s what we’re very scared of.”
Yet there’s no denying that the current movement has brought solidarity among different Hong Kongers on a previously unseen scale—albeit somewhat accidentally. Unlike other protest movements, it has effectively used creative and grassroots messaging to target a global audience—inadvertently extending accessibility to local non-Chinese speakers, said Puja Kapai of the University of Hong Kong.
Many people have been empowered by expressions of unity and have experienced political awakenings for the first time. Han Chinese locals are also becoming more aware of the ethnic minority communities. A local journalist of Pakistani descent became a protest icon after fiercely cross-examining government officials in fluent Cantonese. Various ethnic minority protesters have also been embraced as Hong Kongers. “There have been blessings in disguise,” Malik said.
Jeffrey Andrews, a local social worker of Indian descent who organized the Thanksgiving gathering at Chungking Mansions, said many of the Han Chinese guests had never mingled with ethnic minorities before. “For the very first time, we’ve taken ownership,” he said. “We’ve taken a crisis and turned it into an opportunity.”
As the protests spiral into their 22nd week, Zab’s family and friends have warned him against becoming more involved in the crisis. But in Zab’s eyes, the movement has already entangled Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities, whether they like it or not. “If we consider ourselves as part of Hong Kong, we should be involved in political affairs,” said Zab, who is thinking of running for district council in the future. “We can’t just stay behind the scenes.”
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