Helped by high-end immigration from the mainland, the Chinese community is coming out of its shell

In many ways, Alan Mak was a classic child of immigrants. His parents came from what was then the British colony of Hong Kong to run a takeaway in York in the late 1970s. He shared a room with them until he was in secondary school, in a flat above the shop with no inside bathroom. But he worked hard, got into Cambridge and became a lawyer and small-business owner. Then, last year, he took a step that few other ethnic Chinese have taken: he stood for Parliament in the seat of Havant in southern England and won, becoming the first MP of Chinese origin. Whereas there are about a dozen black MPs and about twice that many of South Asian descent, Britain’s Chinese have long been a silent minority, in politics and wider society. That is now changing, spurred on by a new mindset among British-Chinese and changes in China itself.

 

The 2011 census recorded 430,000 ethnic-Chinese in Britain. Jackson Ng, a second-generation Chinese barrister and one of about ten other Chinese to stand for Parliament last year, believes the real number could be more than 600,000. “Many people don’t engage with the census,” he says.

The Chinese have in many ways been a model minority as well as a silent one. They have no religious reasons to clash with Britain’s mildly Christian culture. They are highly dispersed, which eases their integration. What’s more, community workers say, they claim even less from the state than they are entitled to. “Chinese people try to be self-sufficient and some feel they lose face if they claim benefits,” says Mei Sim Lai of the Chinese Welfare Trust, a charity. Only 7% of Chinese 16-year-olds receive free school meals, compared with 12% of whites and 24% of Pakistanis.

Chinese children are Britain’s cleverest. In GCSE exams, taken at 16, last year 77% achieved five good grades, slightly more than Indians (72%) and streets ahead of the national average of 57%. Even more impressive, among those on free school meals 74% achieved the same standard; the national average was 33%. Unsurprisingly, Chinese students’ entry rate to university, at 58%, is the highest of all ethnic groups.

But for decades this success has not translated into higher visibility, or even better chances of employment. Second-generation Chinese have typically gone into solid professions, such as accountancy and medicine, like their Indian counterparts. But their employment rate, at just 57%, is much lower than that of other, less well-qualified groups (see chart). And very few Chinese have moved into civic positions of influence, such as school governors. Of 18,000 local councillors around the country, perhaps a dozen are Chinese, reckons Alex Yip, a councillor in Birmingham. “We are by culture inward-looking. We look after our families first, we don’t want trouble,” says Ms Lai. She drums into foreign Chinese students that it is not enough just to get good grades.

The challenge now, says Mr Mak, is to turn a strong story of integration into influence and engagement. British-born Chinese are starting to do that, he says, and getting a boost from a new type of migrant. Students from mainland China, many of them now more affluent than those from Hong Kong, make up a quarter of all those entering full-time taught master’s degrees in Britain. The number coming from China to study at British universities has more than doubled in the past decade, to around 90,000. Nearly a quarter of foreign pupils at private boarding schools are Chinese.

Many stay on in well-paid jobs. One in ten works in finance. They are more likely to be found enjoying a glass of bubbly at the monthly gathering of the Association of Chinese Finance Professionals than washing dishes in Chinatown. The Sunday Times Rich List has long been peppered with South Asian names. But now a few Chinese ones are cropping up among the wealthy. Yan Huo is the founder of Capula, a hedge fund; Ning Li is the boss ofMade.com, a bespoke-furniture website.

Some of the newcomers are getting involved politically. Xingang Wang arrived in 2001 for a master’s degree at Imperial College London. He now works in finance and ran for Parliament last year, unsuccessfully. He intends to try again. Once you have a good economic life, he says, you want to participate more.

The balance of the community is being changed not just by more wealthy arrivals at the top but by fewer poor ones at the bottom. Illegal Chinese immigration came to public attention in 2000 when 58 Chinese migrants were found dead in the back of a lorry that had come through the Channel Tunnel. Then, in 2004, 23 drowned working as cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay.

Chinese social organisations say that, in the past decade, opportunities in a booming China and tighter immigration controls in Britain have meant that fewer illegal migrants are trying to come. Tougher penalties on employers have had an impact. So has the introduction, in 2007, of fingerprinting of those on visas. There may be as many as 100,000 illegal migrants in Britain, says Mr Ng, many in debt to traffickers. But he estimates that illegal arrivals are about a tenth of what they were in 2004.

The tilt towards Mandarin-speaking mainlanders has caused some friction. For decades, the majority of Chinese came from Hong Kong. They spoke Cantonese and tended to look down on the poorer, less cosmopolitan mainlanders. Now, though, the prejudices are starting to reverse. Some of the older, Hong Kong-born generation, less worldly and less well integrated, feel left behind.

And being a model minority has often worked against the Chinese. The squeaky wheels get all the oil, says one community worker. The different origins of Chinese groups, whose roots are in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan, as well as China and Hong Kong, mean the community is not united. But that also helps integration. Some South Asian MPs focus on issues in Asian communities. But Havant has very few Chinese. “I am not representing the Chinese,” says Mr Mak. “I am serving all the people of my constituency.”

Correction: Two figures in this article were incorrect and have been updated. The number of ethnic-Chinese in Britain, according to the 2011 census, is 430,000, not 390,000. And the number of students from mainland China at British universities is more than double that of a decade ago, not nearly double.

The Economist

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here