The deadly silence of Britain's Chinese minority

When events erupt such as this one, the community feels blamed and criminalised, and hides away even more
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The Independent Online

Nineteen Chinese workers drowned piteously in Morecambe Bay last week. Illegal or not, they were indefatigable labourers, toiling without respite in conditions few of us can imagine. They died in the night, in the cold, and the nation woke up next morning to confront the truth that such desperation exists in the our world today. Some commentators instantly questioned how these victims had the impudence to travel across from a no-hope place to do what all human beings do: try at any cost to help their loved ones to live.

Nineteen Chinese workers drowned piteously in Morecambe Bay last week. Illegal or not, they were indefatigable labourers, toiling without respite in conditions few of us can imagine. They died in the night, in the cold, and the nation woke up next morning to confront the truth that such desperation exists in the our world today. Some commentators instantly questioned how these victims had the impudence to travel across from a no-hope place to do what all human beings do: try at any cost to help their loved ones to live.

While there were grumblers who took the opportunity to beat up on immigrant labour, most of the residents of Morecambe Bay were luminously decent. Volunteers - white British, I am proud to say - spent hours looking for bodies and survivors. The local MP, Geraldine Smith, and the police spokespeople were humane and full of genuine grief that the sea should have taken away so many young people on whose pittance other lives must depend. Counselling is being offered to survivors.

How different from the scorching summer of 2000 when 58 young Chinese men and women died, suffocated, in a truck in Dover. Key local and national figures then abysmally failed to lead the country towards a moment of collective sorrow before furious debates over illegal immigration took over. With the actors Corin Redgrave and Kika Markham, I organised a vigil attended by dozens of actors, directors, journalists and writers who turned out to remember these people. Interflora gave free flowers, a gesture that can never be forgotten.

But one thing was striking: the response of the British Chinese community, the third largest "ethnic" group in this country, after South Asian and black Britons. Most were dead keen on not being involved with the vigil. It would give them a bad name; they were not like those other noisy immigrants who dash out to protest and riot, to endlessly moan and draw attention to themselves in the most unseemly manner. These were the responses we received from all but a small number of activists.

I was then on the Home Office Race Forum, which advised the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, on, among other things, amendments to the Race Relations Act. A Chinese "community leader" was a member too. When the corpses were discovered he denounced the dead and asked the Home Secretary to come down heavily on such "illegals". The same unelected "representative" has disgracefully piped up again this time, asking all Chinese asylum-seekers to be deported on sight.

Black Britons solidly stood behind the family of Joy Gardener, who died as she struggled against deportation. For decades, people of all backgrounds have sought to fight a system that demonises migrants and creates gross inequalities in the world. Jabez Lam, a Chinese Briton who works tirelessly to fight racism against his people and to galvanise their political energy, tells me campaigners like himself are livid with these wealthy Chinese bosses who collude with the state's indifference towards immigrant employment.

Undocumented workers have saved many British Chinese restaurants from extinction - as the owners got older they couldn't work long hours. Their children want professions and a good life (young Chinese Britons are among our top academic achievers), and the only way to deal with acute labour shortages has been to employ desperate people from China who work for low pay and hardly any cost to the boss or the state. Some employers behave with honour, but others behave with capitalist ruthlessness, exploiting their workers without any concern for their humanity.

Lam can reel off cases of oil burnings and limb losses in catering establishments in which the victims didn't dare complain or seek help. Non- Chinese employers of these workers are similarly arrogant in their belief that they can treat these employees as they wish. A few weeks back a Chinese man died after working a 24-hour shift for a Korean manufacturer in Britain.

There is undoubtedly a deep cultural trait that makes Chinese Britons seek anonymity and acquiescence even at moments when they must feel most misunderstood and maligned. When events erupt such as the one we are witnessing, the community feels generically blamed and criminalised, and that leads it to hide away even more. Maybe it is also the fault of black and South Asian antiracists; we have done little to include Chinese Britons in our campaigns.

It is startling just how invisible are these fellow citizens. Do you know that one of them is a peer of the realm? Lord Chan has quietly been in the Lords for a number of years. When did you last see Chinese British actors or reporters or pop artists on our television screens? How many local councillors or quango members are from this background?

Obscurity is meant to offer protection but keeping your head down never wins respect, acknowledgment or rights. Younger-generation British Chinese have websites where they debate this strategy furiously. Research shows a third of Chinese Britons have experienced racial harassment. Some of the victims were well-educated. There is anecdotal evidence that the police stereotype and disregard the complaints. In the past five years there have been serious cases of violence against Chinese citizens in Sidcup, Kingston, Cheltenham, Harringay, Oxford, Nottingham, Belfast. Often the victims are charged and the perpetrators set free.

There is evidence too that self-imposed secrecy means Chinese victims of rape, extortion, beatings, and domestic violence do not report the crimes. They are also unlikely to give evidence against criminal gangs that bring in casual workers.

When I wrote a book for Help the Aged on the needs of various communities, I found that large numbers of Chinese elders never asked for state support, and did not claim what they were entitled to. There is a history behind this. Chinese seamen manned British merchant ships (underpaid of course) from the 18th century. Then in 1908 and 1911 there were violent demonstrations in Liverpool and Cardiff because they were seen with white women. The Alien Acts passed between 1905 and 1920 led to many being deported. A minority were allowed to stay because they ran laundries. Self-op laundrettes then arrived to kill off this business. By the Fifties, when migrants started to arrive from the new territories in Hong Kong, fearful stories of those bad old days were already part of the mythology, and invisibility became a survival strategy.

British Chinese citizens must come out of the shadows and fight more effectively for political clout and a voice. In this globalised world profiteers of all backgrounds expect to do what they will, whatever the human cost. In Morecambe Bay the people behind the cockle business are white British millionaires and the suppliers of illegal workers are Chinese gangsters. Many Chinese Britons have massive wealth and highly educated children. It is indefensible that they allow and excuse, and sometimes even participate in the cruel exploitation of the poorest, most desperate Chinese people, from the "economic miracle" that is China today.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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