Rule of Law or Relational Harmony: Western and Asian Perspectives of Right of Abode in a Hong Kong Classroom

Hong Kong Maid Residency FightShould Filipina maid Evangeline Banao Vallejos (far right) be granted right of abode status in Hong Kong?  According to Professor Robert Nisbett’s cross-cultural research, your answer may indicate whether you see the world from an Asian or Western perspective.


The case seemed simple.  A Filipino maid indexnamed Evangeline Banao Vallejos had served her Hong Kong employer for 25 years.  According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, foreigners living as ‘ordinary residents’ in the territory for more than seven years can apply for permanent residency.

indexWhen I as an expatriate teacher passed the seven-year mark, I applied for and, about six months later, received permanent residency and the right of abode.  However, when Ms. Vallejos applied, this right was denied to her because, according to an immigration ordinance, as a foreign domestic worker she is considered a “non-ordinary resident.” She is now challenging this statute, and a decision will be handed down by the Court of Final Appeals later this month.

Much is at stake in this case. What happens if the Court of Final Appeals passes down a verdict that favors the plaintiff?  It seems likely that the Hong Kong government will refer this case to the National People’s Congress in Beijing, which could “re-interpret” the Basic Law, barring domestic helpers from gaining permanent residency.  While many feel that such a reinterpretation would damage Hong Kong’s rule of law, arguably the city’s greatest asset, at least one prominent politician, Regina Ip, is calling for such a course of action. Only once since the 1997 handover has a case been referred to Beijing for re-interpretation, again involving right of abode, that time concerning mainland Chinese immigration.  Indicative of the highly charged nature of such re-interpretations, it has recently come to light that in 1999 all five judges of the Court of Final Appeals seriously considered resigning over the referral of the case to Beijing (Cheung and Ip, 2011).

A Western Expatriate Perspective

Initially, this seemed to be an open and shut case to me.  This woman, like myself, has lived in Hong Kong for far more than the minimum seven years to qualify for permanent residency.  Despite differences in nationality, educational level, occupation, and social status, I considered this woman to fall into the same general category as myself.  I expected (and still do expect) the court to side with this woman’s argument.

I was taken aback, then, that a sizable and vocal group of Hong Kong people protested against this helper’s case.  One protester’s sign read, “We pay you.  That is enough.”  Although I didn’t share my opinions readily with others, my first reaction was that these protesters were being hypocritical and or even racist.  Can’t they see, I thought, that the claim that domestic helpers are “non-ordinary residents” is nothing but a technicality used to strip a certain class of undesirable foreigners of their due right under the law?  Aren’t they grateful for the services provided by domestic helpers?

Considering Cultural Assumptions

However, teaching about Richard Nisbett’s research on Asian and Western ways of thinking to my freshmen gave me pause.  Perhaps there was more to this story than meets my Western, expatriate eye.  Nisbett begins his book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerns Think Differently … and Why, by retelling how a Chinese student challenged his assumptions:

One day early in our acquaintance, he said, “You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line . . . .  [The Chinese] think you can’t understand the part without understanding the whole.  Westerners live in a simpler, more deterministic world; they focus on salient objects or people instead of the larger picture . . . .”  I was skeptical but intrigued.  I had been a longlife universalist concerning the nature of human thought (p. xiii). 

This set Nisbett on a new research trail, searching to understand the differences between how Asians and Westerners perceive the world.  The book’s most illustrative example (p. 141) can be seen below:

Nisbett explains that Westerners tend to group the chicken with the cow, while Asians associate the cow with grass.  Westerners see a chicken and cow as belonging to a group of “animals” rather than “plants;” Asians, however, choose the other option because cows eat grass as well as rest in it.  Nisbett uses this simple mental experiment to demonstrate his larger point: Westerners perceive reality in categories which are governed by abstract rules, while Asians see life in terms of relationships.  Interestingly, Asian-Americans responses fall between the two.

 Teaching Geography of Thought in the Humanities Classroom

I wanted to teach Nisbett’s ideas to my ninth grade humanities class as we began the year discussing the concept of worldview.  About 80% of my students are Asian, yet they are studying in a Western educational institution. Learning how Asians and Westerners think differently seems to be an immensely relevant concept to these bi-cultural students.  What would they think, I wondered, of Ms. Vallejos’ case?

I asked my 18 students to line up from most Western to most Asian in my class.  We used language usage at home, basic cultural orientation, years lived in and out of Hong Kong, and local Hong Kong school experience to determine whether students considered themselves to be more Western or more Asian.  Then I put the students in table groupings according to their cultural orientation.  Following an introduction to the case, I showed them this video clip:

After the video, I asked each table group to share their viewpoints.  The two Western table groups (which included two Indian students raised in the U.S.) both thought that Ms. Vallejos deserved the right of abode, reasoning that she belonged into the same category as other non-Chinese residents.  It’s the law, they said.

However, most students in the Asian groups were clearly opposed.  It’s impractical, they argued, to allow hundreds and maybe thousands of Filipinos and Indonesians and their relatives to enter Hong Kong and further strain the social welfare system.  Hong Kong’s poor do not need further competition for scarce resources.

Rather than labeling my Asian students as selfish, hypocritical, or racist, Nisbett’s research provides a way to explain this reasoning in a more positive and, I think, more accurate manner.  From a Western perspective, the starting point in a case such as this is fairness under the law.  From this point of view, this Filipino woman deserves the right of abode. To claim she is a “non-ordinary resident” strains credulity, and seems to be a fig leaf covering Hong Kong people’s instrumental use of domestic helpers.

My Asian students, however, have a different starting point.  Rather than beginning with the rights of individuals, what is most important is the entire context of relationships in Hong Kong. A large influx of Filipinos and other domestic workers poses a threat, they reason, to the overall health of the community.  It is far better to limit immigration for the sake of those with a long-term investment in this community than to open up to foreigners who come to Hong Kong out of self-interest.  Using Nisbett’s research, it seems quite possible that my Asian students place greater value upon the manifestly practical consideration of relational harmony in Hong Kong before the abstract category of individual rights before the law.  The Western position that the rule of law is the preeminent consideration has been nudged aside by an Asian systemic view of social harmony.


I find Nisbett’s research immensely helpful for a number of reasons.  First, it highlights for Westerners that there is not one universal, that is, Western, way of perceiving reality.  A wholly different, historically viable system of thinking is available for consideration.  Rather than simply dismissing Asian or Western perspectives, Nisbett’s research helps each culture to identify strengths and weaknesses of each respective system.

Second, and most relevant to my humanities courses, in order to find solutions to global problems, students need to be exposed to multiple perspectives. My students find Asian sensitivity to context an important value for social harmony and environmental sustainability. Conversely, many students enthusiastically affirm the Western emphasis on individuals finding their “true selves” so as to contribute their particular gifts to the community.

Thirdly, it is evident from Nisbett’s research that abuse is possible in each system.  As Duncan Jebson, an Asian-American lawyer in Hong Kong wrote recently, there is no concept of fairness in traditional Chinese thinking that compares to its fundamental importance in Western thought.  Frequent reports of human rights abuses just across our northern border in China are regular reminders that the rule of law needs to be an essential cornerstone of healthy societies across the globe.  On the other hand, the concept of fairness can be taken to an extreme.  For example, as Nisbett notes, the per capita ratio of lawyers in the US to Japan is 42:1.  The overly litigious nature of American society drains its legal and insurance systems, and reinforces the belief that justice is often a function of financial resources.  The right to bear arms, as guaranteed by the U.S. constitution, is another example where legal categories have seemed to trump the welfare of American society.

Hong Kong is a culturally hybrid city where it is often said that  “East meets West.”  The interactions between these two worldviews are on display in the right of abode case of Ms. Vallejos. Given the rise of China on the world stage, however, the implications of this case go far beyond local Hong Kong politics. From a broader viewpoint, Hong Kong and China are both negotiating between Western and Chinese ways of thinking.  Thus, this case can be seen as another step in the dance between these two cultural approaches.  A verdict in this case is expected in the next two weeks.

October 3, 2011 Update: On Saturday the High Court ruled that foreign domestic helpers should be considered “ordinary residents” of Hong Kong, and therefore are eligible to become permanent residents after living in the territory for seven years.  Thus, the immigration ordinance that had prevented foreign domestic workers from gaining right of abode status has now been struck down as inconsistent with the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.  The government expressed its disappointment with the decision, and leaders are now weighing their next move.  One possible reaction is to refer the case to Beijing for them to re-interpret what “ordinary residents” means in the Basic Law, overturning the judicial decision.  The price to pay for this, however, will be howls of protest from Hong Kong people that value the rule of law as well commentators abroad.  Given the low opinion held by many Hong Kong people of the government, such a move runs the risk of mobilizing local people to oppose both Beijing leaders and their Hong Kong intermediaries.

March 28, 2012 Update: The Court of Appeal overturned a lower court’s decision that Vallejos should be considered an “ordinary resident.”  The three judges unanimously agreed that the legislature can decide which foreigners can be accepted into Hong Kong and on what basis; thus, foreign domestic helpers can be classified as “non-ordinary,” denying them the opportunity to apply for permanent residency after seven years of service in Hong Kong.  The government welcomed the verdict.  Meanwhile Mark Daly, the human rights lawyer defending Vallejos, promised to press on, “It is highly likely we are going to take this to the Court of Final Appeal.  There is no time for disappointment.  We will fight until we see justice” (South China Morning Post, A1, March 29, 2012).


Summary of Nisbett’s Research in Geography of Thought

Asian Perceptions and Values Western Perceptions and Values
Natural and social environment is ever-changing and mysterious. Natural and social environment is stable and comprehendable.
Because environment changes (yin & yang), no search for scientific laws. Because environment is stable and knowable, search for abstract and universal laws (e.g., gravity, Darwinism).
Focus on the context (e.g., the small fish in a fishtank) Focus on objects, not context (e.g., the big fish)
Individual should fit into the environment (China traditional art: family scenes and rural pleasures) Individual can and should try to control and act upon the environment (Greek art: battles, athletic contests, wild parties)
Identity comes from combination of social roles, which often change as the environment changes. Individuals create their own identity based to a large degree on their individual talents, passions and interests, and goals.
Individuals search for the wise way (Tao) to live in society and in the world, which often involves accepting contradictions and finding the Middle Way Individuals search for truth(s) about life, which often involves resolving logical contradictions and living by this truth.
Harmony as a member of a group Individuals strive to find their “true self” and contribute this gift to their community.
Relationships emphasized and confrontation avoided Critical thinking and public debate highly valued
Interdependence emphasized Independence emphasized


Cheung, G. & Ip, C. (2011). Beijing’s right-of-abode rebuff ‘dismayed judges.’ South China Morning Post, September 8, 2011, p. A1 & A3.

Jebson, D. (2011). Reconciling my two cultures. International Herald Tribune, April 14, 2011.  Accessed on September 12, 2011 at

Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently and why.  Free Press: New York.

Additional resources

Filipino Maid Challenges Hong Kong Rule of Residency

Forbes Magazine article on Nisbett’s research

A legal perspective interpreting the term “ordinarily resident”

A 2011 newscast on the issue


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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11 Responses to Rule of Law or Relational Harmony: Western and Asian Perspectives of Right of Abode in a Hong Kong Classroom

  1. Jon Yeung HK says:

    I think that foreign domestic helpers should be allowed permanent right of abode in HK after seven years. After all, it does seem to be discriminatory that this large group of people (>200000) cannot live in HK, despite working here for a very long time. However, this does not deny the fact that preparations should be made to accommodate this influx of population. These preparations will not only take a few years, but maybe even up to a decade, before HK is ready to receive this domestic helpers. Although the road of preparation is long and hard, I think it is HK’s duty to work for the betterment of the domestic helpers, as they have been faithfully serving and “running” HK (to an extent) for many years.

    • Thanks, Jon, for your comment. Have you followed this case? We’ll find out soon what the Court of Final Appeals decides. I’m wondering what you think of my argument that HK people who oppose right of abode are not being discriminatory, but rather have a different starting point in assessing this situation. What does/do your family/local friends think of this situation?

      • Jon Yeung HK says:

        I think that it is valid to say that there is a different starting point. It is definitely something to consider, and it is something I have not considered yet. I do think that allowing immigrants into the city will erode the health of the community, and might even break down HK culture. However, I don’t think that means we should not allow them in. We have allowed these foreign domestic helpers into the city, and we should at least give them a metaphorical “thank you” for their services.

      • Hi Jon,

        Did you get what I meant about starting with the Asian value of social harmony of the community rather than the Western value of equality before the law? As I said in the piece, I think that HK people are not necessarily discriminatory, but from a cultural perspective rule of law is not the only way to approach dealing with this case.

        Look forward to any further thoughts.

        Mr. Schmidt

  2. Meg Ferrin says:

    Thank you again for a wonderfully worded and insightful entry! I appreciate the lens through which you have chosen to view the differences of opinions surrounding this case. (I’m not sure what it says about my point of view, but I actually paired the cow with the grass in the book’s diagram!)

    My gut reaction is that Vallejos should be allowed to take advantage of the right of abode offered to most all other legal aliens, such as myself, and the refusal to offer such strikes me as discriminatory and racist. (I must admit that I have not familiarized myself with all the details of the case, so forgive me if these issues have already been addressed.) This opinion is very Western and North American, of this I am aware. However, based upon Nisbitt’s writing, I have attempted to understand the other side’s viewpoint and find there are valid issues to consider that have not been addressed in this article or my quick refresher of the case’s facts a-la Google.

    1. I would agree that domestic helpers do not necessarily fit into the category of “non-ordinary resident” because of one substantial difference–the payment of income tax. For those who oppose the right of abode (ROA) to be granted to foreign domestic helpers (FDH) for fear that they would cause a financial strain on the social welfare system into which they do not contribute, appears to have some legitimacy. I would however be interested in researching what offerings and services of the social welfare system FDH currently use and the costs involved, as well as any forecasts or speculation about what impact ROA would have on the amount and extent of said services.

    2. I do not agree that “non-ordinary resident” is an appropriate category because of the contract nature of their work or return trips to their country of origin every two years. Certainly we expatriate teachers (and tag-along spouses) return to our “home” countries AT LEAST every two years, but this does not seem to limit our contributions to the economy in the least. I would argue that if we (expatriates living abroad) were not allowed to make those trips home to see family, friends, etc. the cost of expatriate living would far outweigh the benefits and many a Hong Kong company would find its bottom line severely diminished without the work and earnings of non-HK natives.

    3. One of the other reasons for exclusion in the “non-ordinary resident” category was the fact that FDH do not live on their own and are not allowed to have their family with them. This may be coming from my Western viewpoint, but this is another issue all together that frankly irks me. I know a lovely woman who has lived here in HK for over 15 years and lives with her husband, employed here also for that time, and they have recently faced the nightmare of legal hoop-jumping to obtain a visa for her newborn baby. I cannot imagine what I would do if my own children born in HK were not allowed to stay with me and my husband. (Well, yes, I do–I’d get the heck out of Dodge! Which is easy for this Western woman to say, because I am not supporting myself and my family on a meager salary.)

    What would be the greater social and financial implications if FDH were allowed to obtain visas for their dependents? It is worth a deeper look and thoughtful discussion. Several things come to mind: salaries would need to be increased to provide for these dependents, but higher salaries could also possibly be taxed. FDH would need to be allowed to seek private housing to accommodate spouses and children, which also would necessitate higher pay. In my thinking, this would secure an employee who is motivated to stay with a family and do the best job possible because the stakes are enormously higher when one’s family is immediately involved. Conversely, if these “privileges” were the norm, I would assume that the number of FDH employed would decrease considerably, as it would become a cost prohibitive luxury many could not afford.

    Finally, a few random thoughts to close this long-winded epistle. (Feedback is welcome!)
    -What is the most important change to FDH policy that will benefit this community? Is it gaining ROA or should the FDH community focus on hourly wage minimums, freedom to seek personal housing, visas for dependents?

    Thank you again for getting my rusty mental wheels turning.

    • hamza says:

      but,my question is,when philipino or indonesians apply a visa for Hong Kong,there was a clear imigration ordinance that domestic helpers are not to be ordinary residents in HK,and they decide to apply for visa under domestic helpers rule of law then why they changing there mind now.

      • Yes, that’s true, but now that ordinance has been found to be unconstitutional – in conflict with the Basic Law. Given that the Basic Law is the highest law in the land, the ordinance needs to change. Or, at least this is my interpretation from a Western perspective. My point is that Chinese have more of a relational view of the law rather than an abstract categorical view, and so for them this kind of conflict is not problematic because ultimately such a ruling benefits Hong Kong people. However, it diminishes the rule of law. It is a question of what we most value here in Hong Kong.

        Thanks for your response and look forward to more thoughts, Hamza.


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  4. Just now seeing this, and it is an older issue now. While commenting on the outcome (I assume past now) of the case is interesting, it is in many ways much less interesting than the perspectives involved. We all face the tension of living out life in a society of rules and also needing to take into account the relational “hit” that can come from doing so. The immigration challenge in the U.S. is precisely this. Many citizens want to allow a pathway for legal residency precisely because of the negative human impact that deportation would cause. So we find that, while those of a Western mentality and an Eastern mentality may lean more towards one side or the other, it is probably true that we all have both of these in mind on some level. Also, different issues may force one to emphasize one over the other.

    It would be interesting to have this conversation with people in the context of the various issues that we face as a society. Even here, it was necessary to press the “abstract” issue before the specific case was discussed. This is hard for people to do, no matter what worldview they have.

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