It was with some interest that we read this story in the New York Times last week. It seems South Korea, like China, has some issues with racism. And South Korea, like China, is a country where the number of foreigners (often people of other races) is increasing. What was interesting about the article, then, is that the South Korean government is starting to do something about racist incidents. For example:
On the evening of July 10, Bonogit Hussain, a 29-year-old Indian man, and Hahn Ji-seon, a female Korean friend, were riding a bus near Seoul when a man in the back began hurling racial and sexist slurs at them.
The situation would be a familiar one to many Korean women who have dated or even — as in Ms. Hahn’s case — simply traveled in the company of a foreign man.
What was different this time, however, was that, once it was reported in the South Korean media, prosecutors sprang into action, charging the man they have identified only as a 31-year-old Mr. Park with contempt, the first time such charges had been applied to an alleged racist offense. Spurred by the case, which is pending in court, rival political parties in Parliament have begun drafting legislation that for the first time would provide a detailed definition of discrimination by race and ethnicity and impose criminal penalties.
That led me to wonder, does China have any kind of law preventing racial discrimination? There are, of course, laws and policies safeguarding ethnic minorities, but what about people of different races, i.e. Lou Jing, who is ethnically Chinese but racially half African? Are there laws that could punish people for hurling racist invective at her in China?
I decided to ask three people who know way, way more about the law than I do. I sent them a list of questions, but the most important one was this: “What, if anything, does the Chinese law have to say about racial and/or ethnic discrimination?”
The first to respond was Dan Harris, of China Law Blog, an international lawyer based in the US. Dan replied:
I have to confess that I know very little about the questions you ask […] I have to tell you though, that I cannot recall a single instance where any race related issue has come up involving any of our China clients, which helps justify my ignorance on the subject.
The second person I asked was Stan Abrams, of the blog China Hearsay. Stan is a lawyer who’s been living and practicing in Beijing since 1999, and he had this to say in response to my query:
Not much help from my end either, I’m afraid. Never comes up for me either (not exactly a corporate or IP law issue) in practice.
That being said, the law here does contain certain preferences and protections for ethnic minorities. I have come across this in the area of university admissions, and I believe that various other laws/policies contain similar provisions (State and local). I doubt that there is anything in law that collects all these different policies, which means that you will need to look around in various places for this stuff. Beyond the usual keyword searches, I’m not sure where to find this type of thing.
For what it’s worth, I have not heard anything about legal reform in this area. If something was going to be changed with respect to labor law on this specific issue, I would have expected that to have happened in 2007/8, and I don’t think it did.
The third person I asked was Liu Xiaoyuan, the only Chinese lawyer whose name I know, whose practice runs the gamut from criminal defense to traffic accident compensation to marriage law. I didn’t really expect Liu to respond, as we’ve never met or spoken before, but he did. His response — which was quite brief — is translated below:
In China, although there is much prejudice, there is no law on the books about racial prejudice. In fact, Chinese law gives foreigners all sorts of special privileges.
Further searches of the internet also proved fruitless. Dan Harris’s partner at theChina Law Blog, Steve Dickinson, offered me one interpretation why that might be. “There is no concept of race in China,” Dickinson wrote,
…the concept of “race” is a European concept that has no application in China. There is, however, a strong concept of ethnic identity […] Whether they are the same or not is something that would require a careful set of definitions. My point is that the Chinese care about culture but they do not care about blood. Therefore, your basic identity is the culture you follow, not who were your parents.
He’s right, of course, in saying that the Chinese spend a lot more time talking about ethnicity (民族) than they do about race (种族). But the idea that Chinese care about culture more than blood doesn’t really seem to fit with what happened to Lou Jing, an ethnically Chinese but racially half-African Shanghainese girl who was abused by many Chinese netizens for her skin color and racial background despite the fact that she shared their culture.
If there are laws to defend Lou Jing, and those that will inevitably follow her as the number of foreigners and mixed-race couples in China continues to grow, even Liu Xiaoyuan doesn’t know about them. The next questions, of course, are: should there be? And if so, when will there be such laws?