25 October 2016
Ethnic Chinese blend easily into mainstream Britain, and not just in London's Chinatown. Photo:
Ethnic Chinese blend easily into mainstream Britain, and not just in London's Chinatown. Photo:

Why Chinese escape being drawn into British immigration debate

For the last month, political and public debate in Britain has been dominated by one subject – the ‘invasion’ by migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Television stations give live coverage of the entrance to the Channel Tunnel in Calais, where every night hundreds of migrants storm over a barbed wire fence and try to board trains and trucks bound for England, with French police unable to stop them.

But there is one group of migrants absent from the debate – Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland.

No one has called for them to be detained and repatriated nor accused them of cheating the government out of welfare and housing benefits to which they are not entitled.

They continue to work, study and travel normally.

According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Britain had 153,560 refugees, pending asylum cases and stateless people at the end of 2014.

Last year, it had 31,300 new asylum applications, compared with 173,100 in Germany, 121,300 in the United States and 87,800 in Turkey.

The main countries the asylum seekers in Britain come from are Eritrea, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Albania and Sudan.

The reason this is such a major issue in Britain is that, since 1066, the country has never been invaded or occupied, unlike the great majority of countries in Europe.

So native Britons retain a strong sense of island identity.

Membership of the European Union is a matter of business convenience and ease of travel and buying property – not a feeling of empathy with the citizens of the other 26 members nor belonging to the “European family”.

In the general election in May this year, the UK Independence Party – which wants to leave the EU — won 3.8 million votes, or 12.6 per cent of the total.

About one-third of the members of Parliament from the ruling Conservative Party also want the country to leave the EU.

This has forced Prime Minister David Cameron to offer a referendum on EU membership next year or in 2017.

Immigration is also a major issue because of the press, most of it owned by right-wing proprietors.

Their newspapers like nothing better than the story of an asylum seeker who is receiving hundreds of pounds in state benefits – the legal amount is 36.95 pounds (US$57.25) a week per person.

Another favorite is the story of a seeker who has his application refused but avoids deportation and works illegally in a factory, shop or restaurant.

These stories fuel a sense of anger and injustice among the public, especially the poor and working class, who believe that the migrants are taking their jobs, their place in the queue for public housing and their beds in public hospitals.

This resentment has intensified with the creation of the terrorist group Islamic State, for whom an estimated 700 Britons are fighting.

Local Muslims have carried out terrorist attacks in Britain.

The worst – four bombs in the subway and a bus in London in July 2005 — killed 52 people and left more than 700 injured.

Walk through the streets of major cities in Britain and you can see women in full burqas walking behind their husbands.

“If they want to dress like that, let them do it in their own country, not here,” said David Mitchell, a London taxi driver.

“Most people here are not religious – but these people follow a faith from the Middle Ages.

“We do not want them.”

Happily absent from this intense debate are the Chinese who live in Britain.

According to the 2011 census, there were 433,000 of them, 0.7 per cent of the population.

Most are descendants of people who came from former British colonies, especially Hong Kong.

About 300,000 speak Cantonese.

Those from Taiwan and the mainland are a minority.

With Jews and Sikhs, ethnic Chinese are among the most successful migrants to Britain.

In per capita terms, they have a higher percentage of university graduates than British-born whites.

While the first generation mostly worked in catering and laundries, their children have educated themselves and moved into professions and management; 27 per cent of ethnic Chinese in Britain work in professional jobs, compared with 14 per cent of British whites.

They have a low unemployment rate, below 5 per cent.

Ethnic Chinese Britons have the highest median wage of any ethnic group, at nearly 13 pounds an hour, more than white British men and British Indian men.

They drink and smoke less than the British average and have the lowest poverty rates among minority groups.

While a majority report no religious affiliation, those who do – Christian and Buddhist – blend easily into the mainstream community.

All this has earned them if not popularity, at least anonymity among the public at large.

When a Briton sees a Chinese, he does not see a jihadi or a robber.

At this time of rising xenophobia, the Chinese in Britain have earned their blessings.

They can sleep easily, knowing that they will not be splashed on the front page of tomorrow’s paper.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.

EJI Weekly Newsletter