Alan Mak is a Government Whip and MP for Havant. He is the first ever Minister and MP of British-Chinese heritage.
When ConservativeHome asked me to write this article, it prompted me to think widely about the contribution British-Chinese people have made to our country. It also prompted me to look into the wider historical background to the community’s establishment in the UK, and examine how the British-Chinese are doing in general.
Firstly, we should be clear about who we’re discussing. The British-Chinese are UK citizens of Chinese heritage, many born and bred in this country, and who call the UK home. They should not be conflated with people from China, and it would be wrong to assume that British-Chinese people agree with (or have any interest in) the policies of the Chinese Government. Sometimes the British-Chinese are included in the umbrella term “people of East Asian and South East Asian heritage”, a much broader category which also covers people of Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and other Asian heritages; this article is not about them.
The British-Chinese are around 400,000-strong and the country’s third biggest visible ethnic minority, dispersed around the country but largely living in cities such as London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Nobody speaks for all these individuals, and I certainly don’t claim to.
Though present in Britain for at least 150 years, most first generation British-Chinese immigrants came to this country from the 1960s onwards, leaving behind Mao’s Cultural Revolution to look for opportunities elsewhere. Some, like my father, came via Hong Kong, then a British Colony – and most toiled away night and day in low-wage, labour-intensive jobs in takeaways, restaurants and laundries in their new home.
My father’s generation now look on with pride as their British-born sons and daughters have flourished in an impressive and wide range of fields unimaginable to their parents. Britain has given them limitless opportunities to shine and make the most of their talents. Today, prominent British-Chinese figures include a Deputy Chief Constable, a Team GB and world champion athlete, entrepreneurs and business leaders, public servants in our Armed Forces, NHS, schools and civil service, and many others building careers in a wide range of sectors.
Whilst the restaurants and takeaways present in almost every British village, town and city are often the most visible symbols associated with the British-Chinese, they do not represent all that British-Chinese people have achieved in the UK. There is much more, and in my view the British-Chinese make an outstanding contribution to our country. This reflects the hard-working nature and aspirational values of a community that places a premium on education, family values and social mobility.
Figures in the recently-released Sewell Report, and the last census, bear this out: British-Chinese children outperform every other ethnic group at Key Stage 2, GCSE and A-Level, are the most likely to attend university, and are then amongst the highest earners ten years after completing their first degree (earning more than the White British average). In fact, Sewell calls on the Department for Education to “understand and replicate the factors that have led to educational success” for British-Chinese people.
Social mobility is very high, with only five per cent of British-Chinese children remaining in the same routine manual positions as their parents. Second, third and fourth generation British-Chinese are less likely to work in geographically-isolated restaurants and takeaways with long, unsociable hours, and are occupying more professional jobs. British-Chinese people are the least likely ethnic group to receive state benefits, and the least likely to be stopped by the police.
The Sewell Report identified different outcomes for different ethnic groups on a range of indices from educational outcomes to home ownership, and from that statistical perspective the British-Chinese are, in general, doing well. My generation is certainly better off in many ways than my parents’ or my grandparents’. Unsurprisingly, The Economist described the British-Chinese as “a model minority as well as a silent one” – referencing the tendency to keep their heads down, particularly when it comes to getting involved in public life or coming to the attention of the media.
Coronavirus has brought an unwelcome development in that regard, and proved a tough time for some. Whilst the British-Chinese community has nothing to do with the virus breaking out, the pandemic led to a growth in abuse, perpetrated by a senseless minority, against both British-Chinese people and others of East Asian appearance.
During the first wave, the Metropolitan Police recorded 166 verbal, online and physical attacks in February and March 2020 on people of East Asian appearance, up from 66 during the same period in the previous year. By April 2020, this rose to 261, then 323 in May, 395 in June and 381 last July. I raised this with the Home Secretary, and the National Police Chiefs’ Council has been robust in asking its forces to respond proactively to reports of such incidents.
The British-Chinese have much to be proud of, and we can all play a role in telling the British-Chinese story better. This could include launching a “Museum of the British-Chinese” to gather together stories and exhibits that illustrate the British-Chinese contribution, from supporting the Allied war effort in World War I to present day work fighting the pandemic (possibly modelled on America’s national equivalent); and introducing a “British-Chinese and East Asian Heritage Month” to highlight contemporary success stories and raise awareness of how the community started in the UK.
Single-issue identity lobby groups often speak about Britain’s minorities with a pessimism bias in their narratives. Only by focusing on the facts, and empirical data specifically, can we discern a more accurate, balanced picture. Modern Britain is a place where everyone can thrive regardless of their background, and the success of British-Chinese people reflects the opportunities our country continues to provide.