First Chinese MP to fight ethnic corner in Wellington

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A wave of anti-immigrant feeling throughout New Zealand has stirred the political awakening of the country's 185,000-strong Asian community which is expected to turn out in force for Saturday's general election.

As a result, New Zealand is poised to elect its first ethnic Chinese Member of Parliament, 130 years after the first immigrant gold miners from China arrived. Pansy Wong, a 41-year-old Christchurch accountant born in Shanghai and educated in Hong Kong, is almost certain to be elected on the conservative National Party ticket.

Chinese immigrants were denied citizenship and the right to vote until the early 1950s. Since then, they have largely ignored the political process. "They always thought it was a white man's country," said Ken Yee, another National Party candidate who concedes he has only a 50-50 chance of election. Mr Yee, 43, a Canton-born lawyer, was brought to New Zealand by his immigrant parents when he was two.

One man is largely responsible for the immigrants' political awakening - Winston Peters, leader of the nationalist New Zealand First party, who earlier this year made a series of speeches on the theme: "Whose country is it anyway?"

Although he denied charges of racism, Mr Peters tapped latent xenophobia among white New Zealanders. Asian immigration has soared in recent years, with 20,851 people from Taiwan, China and Hong Kong being approved for residence in the 12 months to last June.

The government said the immigrants brought the money and skills New Zealand needs, but Mr Peters said many did not speak English, had no commitment to New Zealand and forced up house prices in Auckland, where most have settled. He called for an annual limit of 10,000 migrants, who would be admitted on probationary visas.

His speeches were blamed for an outbreak of racist attacks on Asians, and prompted the formation of the Ethnic Minority Party, led by Robert Hum, 42, an Auckland banker who migrated from Kuala Lumpur 10 years ago. He claims 120,000 members, and says he has documented 240 racist incidents. "The yellow-peril syndrome has become a paranoia here," he said. The National Party's Mr Yee had one of his election billboards defaced with the words: "Chinks eat cats."

The Asian communities, like European voters, have different electoral priorities, but one common goal - to stop Winston Peters. It may be a lost cause. While New Zealand First's popularity has slipped during the campaign, polls indicate that Mr Peters is likely to be the kingmaker - able to choose whether to join a coalition led either by the Nationals or the main opposition Labour Party.