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Trial By Media: How some Chinese media have stoked racism

Some Chinese-language newspapers in Hong Kong have published biased reports about ethnic minorities for years. But the tides may be turning.

On a warm spring morning in 2016, everything seemed normal as Paul Cheng Ka-pui served customers at his 7-Eleven on Pitt Street in Yau Ma Tei. But by the afternoon, the 39-year-old would be fighting for his life.

A few hours after lunch on 8 March, Cheng spotted a man in his store who was eating crisps without paying for them. Cheng confronted him. After a brief verbal altercation, the man left, but returned not long afterwards brandishing a knife. The man threatened Cheng in front of frightened onlookers, then stabbed him in the chest before fleeing.

Despite attempts by passersby and, later, medical staff, to save his life, Cheng died from the injury a week later. Meanwhile, the perpetrator, Bui Van-cuong, a 32-year-old Canadian national who had been visiting Hong Kong for two months on a tourist visa, was arrested, charged, and sentenced to life in prison. At the time, Bui told the police that a demon had possessed him.

It didn’t take long for local media outlets to confirm that the killer was a Canadian of Vietnamese descent. Once media established the man’s ethnicity, some publications – including Chinese-language newspaper Oriental Daily News and Chinese-language online portal on.cc (both owned by the Oriental Press Group) – began incorrectly associating the man with the asylum-seeking community and parroting negative language used by pro-establishment groups such as Bauhinia Action.

On 16 March, 20 members of Bauhinia Action laid floral wreaths by the entrance of Cheng’s 7-Eleven store and held placards that read: ‘Repatriate fake refugees; ban [torture] claimants”. The group also distributed leaflets outside the store, asking people to share reports with Bauhinia Action if they had been harassed by ‘South Asian fake refugees.’ Two days later, more flowers appeared, bearing similar sentiments, such as: ‘Fake refugees get out of Hong Kong; the rage of Hong Kong people!’

Some of the Oriental Press Group’s affiliated media outlets covered the development, with on.cc releasing two stories on 16 and 18 March with headlines that read, respectively: “Local group commemorates victim of convenience store murder and criticises pan-democracy camp for helping fake refugees” and “Convenience store murder: angry citizens roar; fake refugees get out of Hong Kong.”

Oriental Daily News did not report Bauhinia Action’s demonstration specifically, but did cover the broader issue on 19 March with the headline: ‘Convenient store murder: flower plaque commemorates owner; fake refugees get out of Hong Kong’. None of the reports mentioned that Bui was, in fact, a Canadian national on a legitimate tourist visa, nor did they clarify that he was not, as many people had now been led to believe, a refugee or an asylum seeker.

The inaccurate reports spread quickly, especially on Oriental Daily News’ official Facebook page. Despite several comments confirming that the murder had been committed by a Canadian the initial posts still drew prejudicial comments including: “Fake refugees, rotten refugees, ruining Hong Kong,” and “Fake refugees are stealing money and killing people in Hong Kong…we need to work together to resist them.”

Reports from Oriental Daily regarding 'fake refugees'
Reports from Oriental Daily inaccurately call ethnic minorities ‘fake refugees.’

Numbers Speak Volumes

Despite its self-proclaimed moniker as ‘Asia’s World City,’ Hong Kong remains ethnically and racially homogenous. According to the 2016 Population By-census, 92 per cent of Hong Kong’s 7.34 million residents are ethnically Chinese, while the next largest ethnic group, at around 4.6 per cent, comprises Southeast Asians – specifically, people of Filipino and Indonesian descent – the vast majority of whom work legally as domestic helpers.

Residents of Thai ethnicity account for just 0.1 per cent; “Other Asians,” as the census states, 0.2 per cent; and Caucasians, 0.7 per cent. Meanwhile, South Asians – Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankans – comprise just over 1 per cent of the population. What’s more, over half of the Nepalese community and half of the Pakistani community in Hong Kong were born locally. 

Many ethnic Chinese residents (especially elderly ones and, by 2033, a quarter of Hongkongers are projected to be over 65) have little to no contact with other ethnic groups, apart from perhaps their domestic workers who tend to be Southeast Asians. And a study published in 2012 by Hong Kong Unison, an NGO that serves ethnic minorities, found that less than half of Chinese Hongkongers accept Africans, South Asians, or Southeast Asians into their personal lives as friends, relatives or spouses.

In 2016, the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups interviewed 520 Hong Kong residents between the ages of 15 and 34 and found that 63 per cent had not interacted with an ethnic minority in the past year. In addition, the survey provided insights into Hongkongers’ attitudes through negative comments, such as: “Ethnic minorities are not productive and make no contribution to society”; “We have different lifestyles”; and they “have body odour.”

Ng Fung-sheung, assistant professor at The Education University of Hong Kong, and founder of the Hong Kong Society for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (HKSASR), says the media has traditionally played a significant part in shaping negative perceptions about ethnic minorities and asylum seekers in the city: “They have been perceived in a negative light for so long, and their struggles and achievements often go unheard.”

They have been perceived in a negative light for so long, and their struggles and achievements often go unheard.

Ng Fung-sheung

In recent years, prejudice and resentment against asylum seekers, especially an uptick in the use of the term ‘fake refugee’, has permeated news reports and everyday conversation. Experts have attributed negative public opinion to the low acceptance rate of protection claims (Hong Kong verifies around 0.8 per cent of non-refoulement applications), which breeds skepticism about their reports of torture and persecution in their home country. A survey conducted by The Education University of Hong Kong in 2018 found that 61.5 per cent of respondents associated asylum seekers with ‘fake refugees,’ while half of them associated them with criminal activities.

Ng believes that some local media outlets stoke fears and resentment against asylum seekers and ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. Her assertion is supported by the research she published in 2017, which explored media portrayals of asylum seekers locally. The study looked into news reports published between 1 June 2015 and 31 July 2016 by 11 major Chinese-language newspapers and two English-language newspapers in the city, and found that 358 stories contained the terms ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘refugees’, ‘human snake’, ‘South Asian men’, ‘non-refoulement claimants’, and ‘immigration papers’. Of these, 218 were in relation to crimes committed or allegedly committed by asylum seekers; of these, 169 were associated with South Asians.

Meanwhile, out of these 358 articles, 219 mentioned ‘fake refugees’, and almost all of them were crime-related. And out of these 219 stories, 142 were published by Oriental Daily News and 60 by The Sun (Oriental Daily News’ sister newspaper, which ceased publication in April 2016).

“We noticed that other ethnic minority groups are rarely mentioned in the immigrant-related crimes,” says Ng. “This shows that the local media puts a lot of focus on negative news reports concerning South Asians – associating them with fake refugees, illegal immigrants and criminals.”

According to statistics from the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF), of  the 28,966 individuals arrested in 2018, only 4,021 (13.8 per cent) were of non-Chinese ethnic background. Meanwhile, numbers from 2014 to 2018 show that, among non-Chinese individuals who were arrested, around half were local residents. The HKPF does not specify ethnic groups – for example, listing “Africans” as one category – which makes it challenging to extract more precise insights.

“We have to be very careful when we look at these statistics – being arrested doesn’t mean being charged; sometimes, [asylum seekers] are arrested only because they get into a fight with each other, and will be released after they decide to settle the case,” Ng explained. “Moreover, as the police don’t break down the number of arrested non-Chinese by their ethnicity, there is a lot of uncertainty in these numbers.”

Leung Yuk-ming, associate professor in the Culture Studies Department at Lingnan University
Leung Yuk-ming, an associate professor at Lingnan University, says Oriental Press Group’s media outlets systematically portray ethnic minorities as a social problem,

Alternative Agendas

In January 2016, four South Asians robbed a garage owner in North Point and stole HK$100,000. While Apple Daily and Ming Pao reported that the perpetrators were South Asian, Oriental Daily News and on.cc used more prejudicial language.

They described the behaviour as a ‘poisonous tumor’; the four men as ‘South Asian bandits’; and warned of ‘South Asian armies’ committing numerous crimes in the city. Both publications also associated the crime with an influx of ‘fake refugees’ and South Asian ‘human snakes’ (a commonly used term referring to ‘illegal immigrants’) even before the status of the offenders had been confirmed by the police.

Unfortunately, asylum seekers can do little to defend themselves against negative media coverage. Rita Mendoza*, a 44-year-old Filipina woman who moved to Hong Kong as a domestic worker 13 years ago, is now applying for asylum in the city in an attempt to flee her abusive husband back home. The Philippines is one of the only countries in the world where divorce is still illegal.

“I feel scared and worried when I heard some news implying that [asylum seekers like us] are causing problems in Hong Kong,” she says. “We know that some reports are discriminative or even inaccurate, but we can’t say anything about it. The people here are not in favour of us.”

Leung Yuk-ming, an associate professor in the Cultural Studies Department at Lingnan University, says Oriental Press Group’s media outlets, in particular, have shown a systematic approach in portraying ethnic minorities and asylum seekers as a social problem – from the number of negative reports to the inflammatory language used.

“When these media outlets talk about South Asians, they usually associate them with fake refugees or illegal immigrants, followed by unnecessary and negative descriptions. They are intentionally lumping different groups of people together,” says Leung. “Such reports just show how insouciant these publications can be, and how little they care about truth. They are violating the media’s code of ethics.”

Such reports just show how insouciant these publications can be, and how little they care about truth.

Leung Yuk-ming

Ng goes on to confirm that the types of newspapers that mention refugees, asylum seekers, and South Asians in a negative light are often pro-establishment, and close to the pro-establishment parties in the Legislative Council. Ariana reached out to Oriental Press Group for comment but did not receive a reply. 

According to Ng’s observation, news reports about ‘fake refugees’ soared after pro-establishment lawmaker Ip Kwok-him submitted a motion to the Legislative Council to combat ‘fake refugees’ in December 2015, alleging that they were working illegally and causing disturbances in the local community. The motion received overwhelming support from other pro-establishment lawmakers, many of whom proposed the establishment of a closed refugee camp.   

The motion to combat ‘fake refugees’ was rejected by the Legislative Assembly, but the proposal to set up refugee camps was raised again last year by pro-establishment lawmakers and local scholars. In response, John Lee Ka-chiu, current Secretary for Security, said such an approach did not fit the current situation. 

A Culture of Complacency

In 2016, Ng conducted research in a village in Pat Heung, in the New Territories, that has a sizable population of ethnic minorities, including asylum seekers and Hong Kong ID holders. During one such visit, local Chinese residents told her that they had held a meeting to discuss whether they should continue to lease their houses to ethnic minorities.

Ng recalls: “They said there had been too much negative news about these people and too many reporters visiting their village. They were worried that the ethnic minorities would do something bad and ruin the reputation of their village.”

According to Ng, some villagers decided to stop renting property to ethnic minorities. When Ng asked some of the villagers what these people had done wrong, they only said they did not like them sitting outside their houses all day.

Mendoza from the Philippines is also no stranger to the “sin of existence.” She says she has experienced many instances of discrimination while living in Hong Kong. Once, when she sat in an empty seat on the MTR, she remembers a Chinese woman yelling at her for using Hong Kong’s public services: “How can you do that? I know you are getting money from the Hong Kong government!”

Ng says it’s hard to prove whether such hostility is fueled by negative news reports or personal experiences – or a combination of both – but ‘wasting public funds’ and ‘wasting resources’ are some of the more common assertions made by pro-establishment politicians and their respective media outlets to smear asylum seekers.

Critical headlines include: “Hong Kong is sinking: [Lawmakers] pretend they don’t see the problem of fake refugees, like sweeping garbage into the carpet” and “Fake refugees break the law and commit crimes; local groups condemn [fake refugees] for wasting public funding and urge sending them back to their home countries’, published by on.cc on 22 October 2018 and 6 March 2019, respectively.

Other reports include: “Fake refugees refuse to leave and destroy Hong Kong; five years burning away HK$5 billion public funding” and “The destruction caused by fake refugees to Hong Kong never stops because the government refuses to build a closed refugee camp” published by Oriental Daily News on 30 December 2018 and 4 May 2019, respectively.

 “The problem is, the media reports about asylum seekers are on surface level and tend to make generalisations. They seldom probe the real reason why they are in Hong Kong in the first place or shine a light on the difficulties they face,” Ng says. “The saddest thing is, asylum seekers [who I know] believe they can’t argue back, that they don’t have a voice, because they know they’re just living at the mercy of the Hong Kong government.”

Shaping the Narrative

A survey of 1,000 young people (aged 15 to 29) conducted in 2013 by Clement So, a professor at Chinese University’s School of Journalism and Communication, found that 67 per cent of Hongkongers surveyed often consume news via social media. Similarly, market research group Statista found in 2017 that 78 per cent of Hong Kong’s population are active social media users.

As such, many of the city’s traditional Chinese language newspapers, such as Oriental Daily News, Ming Pao, Ta Kung Pao, and Sing Tao Daily have established Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, YouTube channels, and news apps within the last decade to keep pace with readers’ habits. Among these, the Facebook page of Oriental Daily News has attracted half a million followers (almost 10 per cent of the city, though this might also include international readers) and has since become one of the most-followed Facebook news platforms in Hong Kong.

“In the past, we tended to believe that the core audience for traditional or pro-establishment newspapers were the older generations but now, through social media channels, the news media is also reaching younger audiences,” says Ng.

Where there are negative perceptions, there are also positive portrayal particularly with high-quality, online Chinese-language news media, such as Initium Media and The News Lens, having launched in the last few years. According to Ng, these outlets tend to feature quality, in-depth stories about asylum seekers and ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. For instance, an article published by Initium Media in 2016 told the story of a teacher who fled his home in the Congo in 2003 and has been stuck in Hong Kong ever since.

On a more personal level, social media channels offer a variety of platforms for ethnic minority youth to express their cultural identities and pursue creative endeavours. John Nguyet Erni, Fung Hon Chu Endowed Chair of Humanics at Baptist University, has spent many years studying media culture and ethnic minorities. “Many ethnic minority youths that I know are very grateful for having these platforms to showcase their talents, because in the mainstream entertainment world of Hong Kong, which is dominated by Chinese entertainers, they basically stand no chance.”

Raja Hamza, founder of online entertainment channel The HBA
“We are also Hongkongers,” says Raja Hamza, founder of online entertainment channel The HBA

Raja Hamza is a testament to the possibilities. The 22-year-old, who moved to Hong Kong from Pakistan as an infant and speaks Cantonese fluently, founded an online entertainment channel called The HBA in June 2017, through which he directs and acts in short films that he shares on the channel ’s Facebook page.

Hamza says he has always had an interest in film production and has appeared in at least 10 local television and film productions. But he was tired of always being offered the role of the gangster or bodyguard, thus consigning him to a stereotypical view of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. He was inspired to establish The HBA to counter these exhausted clichés. “I want to let the people in Hong Kong know who South Asians really are. I want to let them know that we are also Hongkongers.”

His short films and interviews have received positive responses from viewers, many of whom left comments of encouragement such as “Real Hongkongers!” and “Your Cantonese is better than ours!” However, the positive support was soon overshadowed by hostility after Hamza released a short film called The Story of South Asians in December 2017, which aimed to highlight the discrimination faced by South Asians in Hong Kong and raise awareness against negative stereotyping.

Hamza recalls the attacks and insults that came flooding in. Racial comments included “South Asians please don’t rape women” and “I f***ing hate South Asians using the basketball courts to play cricket.” The film was even shared on the Facebook page of a local Hong Kong group that demands the repatriation of refugees, with an updated text criticising the film for “neglecting the serious problem of their compatriots imposing violence and crimes on Hong Kong people.”

Ng, like many cultural experts, sees how effective the internet is when it comes to bringing like-minded people together; however, it can also become an echo-chamber that influences preconceived ideas rather than challenges them.

Ng Fung-sheung hosts a Cantonese learning playgroup for asylum seekers
Ng Fung-sheung hosts Cantonese learning groups for asylum seekers where she invites local Hongkongers to drop in and engage.

Positive Changes

On the bright side, John Nguyet Erni of Baptist University has noticed that traditional news media outlets have started to feature more positive stories about ethnic minorities in Hong Kong over the past two or three years.

Besides the hard work and perseverance of ethnic minority groups in Hong Kong, Erni believes that there are a number of reasons for this shift, including the increased attention from politicians and a proliferation of studies conducted by academics and historians.

For instance, The Invisible Citizens of Hong Kong, a book published by Sophia Law in 2014, explores the history of Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Erni’s own publication (co-written with Leung from Lingnan University) Understanding South Asian Minorities in Hong Kong in 2014 chronicles the history and culture of South Asians, as well as the challenges and discrimination they face. Erni says the more studies there are on ethnic minorities, the more understanding there will be.

He also credits the city’s NGOs, which work tirelessly to promote the rights and opportunities of ethnic minorities, asylum seekers, and immigrants in Hong Kong. “You occasionally see in the news that members of an ethnic community have been given awards, gained a place at a university, or found a prominent job.” The NGOs, he says, are very much behind these types of positive stories and motivational opportunities.

Meanwhile, Ng believes that increased interaction between Hong Kong’s Chinese and ethnic minority groups is vital in promoting mutual understanding. With this in mind, Ng’s NGO, HKSASR, welcomes locals to visit and interact with asylum seekers.

According to Ng, she has encountered people of all ages who have doubts about asylum seekers and immigrants, including the young. “Sometimes they ask me why we should let these people stay in Hong Kong,” Ng says. “The advantage of young people is that you can reason with them. They are more open to new ideas and concepts.”

However, this doesn’t mean the older generation can’t, or won’t, change their perceptions. Ng says she revisited the same walled village in Pat Heung recently and found out that the villagers had since re-accepted ethnic minorities, as they began to gradually realise they were not there to make trouble. Undoubtedly the increase in positive news stories in the mainstream media, and increased interactions, have helped.

“Misunderstandings are often caused by language barriers and cultural differences. In this context, negative reports in the media will simply fuel anxieties,” Ng says. “But we’ve noticed that when the two communities start to understand more about each other, their relationship improves.”