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As a proud British citizen, born in Malaysia and of Chinese descent, 2016 has been a terrifying year. The rise in racist incidents and attacks since the EU Referendum has been well-documented – an outpouring of hate that shocked so many across the country, who believed us to be an open, diverse and welcoming society. I’ve received so many emails from friends in the Chinese community and with ancestors across the world who have experienced abuse in the last six weeks, it makes you wonder what it means to be British.

But post-Brexit racism is not the only reason that 2016 has been terrifying: it will be remembered as the first year in the 21st Century that it became legitimate and acceptable to incite fear of ‘the other’ and foment division between communities as strategies to try and win elections and sell newspapers.

The Brexit campaign is the obvious feature example and will go down as a truly shameful chapter in British history – not because of the result, but the nature of the campaign. Nigel Farage standing in front of a picture of Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives, declaring that the UK had reached breaking point. Boris Johnson – our new foreign secretary – stoking fear that Turkey would soon join the EU, knowing it isn’t a remote possibility in even the medium term.

The brazen race-baiting of the top Brexiteers almost makes us forget the deliberate, ugly tenor of Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign, which tried to fuel xenophobia to reduce Sadiq Khan’s vote. While Sadiq’s fantastic victory and leadership are a celebration of London’s diversity, we should not forget that the then prime minister himself used the same dog-whistle tactics at PMQs.

These campaigns are a culmination of years of rising discriminatory rhetoric within our political and media worlds. Rather worryingly, one of the best examples is an initiative of the new prime minister Theresa May. However much she championed “the union between all of our citizens, whoever we are and wherever we’re from” in her first statement from Number 10, she was also the home secretary who presided over the infamous, inflammatory ‘go home’ vans targeting illegal immigrants.

Baroness Warsi is absolutely right to say that in using such tactics, “politicians are to blame for the rise of ‘respectable racism’.”

We know that this racism has long been part of our society, an ugly part of reality for ethnic minorities. The British Chinese Project has studied everyday racism experienced by the Chinese-descent community extensively in recent years and it takes many forms, from deeply embedded workplace discrimination to racial slurs hurled at you in public when you least expect it, when you’re just taking the bus, doing the shopping or out with friends. As the Chinese community experiences, so does every other community with ancestors in other parts of the world. It infects every part of people’s lives.

And rather than coming together to tackle this racism and its causes, mainstream politicians have either ignored the issue or cynically stoked it to gain votes. Yet, as we’ve seen, when one creates and widens fractures in society, eventually it will break.

That does not mean that people who voted to leave are racist. Absolutely not – concerns about immigration are legitimate as it has a very real social and economic impact which cannot be reduced to overall GDP statistics that suggest it is entirely good. To bury our heads in the sand and simply dismiss concerns as racist doesn’t help anyone. The reality is that if there is no great thought given to how immigrants live within the communities they move into (socially and economically), unintended impacts can often cause tension.

Yet we cannot deny that alongside these genuine concerns around the impact of immigration, an ugly strain of prejudice and hatred has been encouraged. It is the minority, but if not addressed it will continue to spread. In part, it has already prevented us from doing our full part in helping refugees escape the horrors of war. The poison directed for so long at economic immigrants – people who want to move here – has spilled over onto refugees, people who have been forced to move. While targeting either betrays the innate sense of decency and empathy the British are known for, that it now prevents us from helping people who are suffering beyond comprehension is reprehensible.

Theresa May has pledged to bring the country back together. In a formidably full in-tray, tackling discrimination must be at the top of the pile – embedded into every policy area from Brexit negotiation to public service spending.

There are three principles that a cross-government approach must take.

Firstly, it must shift its focus from multiculturalism to multi-integration: multiculturalism has often promoted the unique natures of different cultures, leading to separation between communities. We must celebrate all of our cultures but also provide much greater opportunities for people to experience and integrate with other cultures, so they can see that different cultures don’t threaten British culture, but enhance it. Responsibility for this lies in part with individuals, in part with government and in part with ethnic minority communities themselves. The British Chinese community in particular has had a tendency to not fully engage in every aspect of society and so we must push ourselves to be full participants.

Secondly, government policy must manage immigration better. Immigration has been a huge positive for the UK, but as the EU referendum has shown us, we have ignored its negative impacts for too long. We need to manage the flow of people into the country very carefully so that these negative impacts don’t happen. For example, we could have a transition period of five years before granting permanent residency status so that immigrants can show they are good citizens, contribute with taxes and have the opportunity to fully engage with British culture, history, customs and, yes, the English language. The TUC have produced an excellent report with a raft of recommendations, including taking action against undercutting and exploitation of workers that drags down; ensuring fair access to housing, education and health by expanding service provision to meet need; and ensuring that there is increased training for the skills required by the economy.

Thirdly, the government must strengthen existing legislation against hate crime. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will shortly be publishing a new review into hate crimes with recommendations on this and we should take their recommendations seriously.

As we look to a post-Brexit future, we must make sure that 2016 is a zero hour, from which we can focus on addressing the fractures in our society and challenging the poison of racism both where it manifests itself and at its source.

Theresa May must make the concept of a union of citizens real in the UK. In the aftermath of Brexit and the outbreak of racism that came with it, our future depends on it.

Sonny Leong CBE

Chair, Chinese for Labour


This article is also published in the Fabian Review Online

A Union of Citizens

  As a proud British citizen, born in Malaysia and of Chinese descent, 2016 has been a terrifying year. The rise in racist incidents and attacks since the EU Referendum...

I was sat across from four Americans on Shanghai’s Bund waterfront when China was beat into second place at the last Olympics.

Along with hundreds of locals we crowded around a giant outdoor screen to witness the moment. Slow motion shots of American gymnast Gabby Douglas vaulting through the air offered visual confirmation of her and her country’s victory.

The gathered expats dotted around the restaurant’s patio expelled a small breath of relief, celebrating respite from the national sense of hubris accompanying what seemed like China’s unassailable journey at the Games.

For us Douglas’ routine represented a melodious art form, the human body conquering its physical realm. For them it represented a missed opportunity for China to project its strength through sporting triumph.

China doesn’t usually do soft power well. During President Xi Jin Ping’s UK visit full page print adverts were taken out by the country’s information ministry to broadcast the leader’s presence. The country’s prowess at Olympic sports is one of the few tools in the box it can, and has successfully, wielded.

For so conflated with a sense of place in the world are the Olympics for China, that the fragile reaction to the prospect of it coming third at this year’s Games is little surprise.


Xinhua news agency, the ruling Communist party’s mouthpiece, tweeted pictures of a splayed and dejected gymnast You Hao to its 5 million followers, accompanied by a choice word: “flop”.

Guilt is not a concept as societally familiar to our Chinese cousins as it is to those of us in Western cultures. Shame, however, is a spike felt even more sharply, particularly given its very public dimension.

You Hao has, inadvertently and unwillingly, become the poster boy for the impending national sense of shame should China not resume its ‘rightful’ position in second, or indeed first place.

The historical significance of the offending nation being Britain is not lost on the arbiters of state control.

“The country which has never finished above China is about to,” complained Xinhua. This is in spite of China sending its largest ever Olympic team to Rio.

This small nation of quaintness, a forlorn power beating a machine which seizes its athletes at the youngest of ages, moulds and rote trains them to be both medal winning engines and devices of state propaganda will dent the delicate Chinese psyche.

A brief stint as an English teacher in Beijing during the last Olympics quickly taught me the sense of victimhood which still lingered following the ‘hundred years of humiliation’. A century of intervention by Western powers, notably the British, had prevented China from assuming its rightful place as a world power. So the textbooks read.

Remedying this tragedy has been a hallmark of President Xi’s Chinese Dream — an attempt to galvanise the populace behind a vision of a powerful, uncompromising nation. Bonnie Glaser of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a US based think-tank, articulates this vision succinctly: “China will be at the centre, and every other nation will have to consider China’s interests.”

Third place is not one which China sees itself having in the world. But maybe this loss, and it will be perceived as a loss, will force China to re-examine its fragile national ego. Perhaps it will teach the nation that strength can sometimes be best demonstrated in dealing with defeat. And humility in victory is a trait to which we all aspire.

For if President Xi is to have his Chinese Dream, a China with these qualities will be an easier one to live with.

What China can learn from its Olympic 'flop'

I was sat across from four Americans on Shanghai’s Bund waterfront when China was beat into second place at the last Olympics. Along with hundreds of locals we crowded around...


Re-building trust in the economy is essential to a successful post-Brexit future

by Sonny Leong CBE, Co-Founder SME for Labour and Chair, Chinese for Labour and Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

There is no doubt that the 23rd June 2016 was a watershed moment for our country. But what type of watershed will it be? Will Brexit signal the decline of the UK as a global power, a potential break-up of the Union and a voluntary resignation from the world stage with a shrinking economy and a divided population?

Or will it force us to confront some stark realities and bridge some of the deep fissures in our society and in our economy? Can we use Brexit as an opportunity to think afresh about how to create a more united society, a more just economy and forge a new role in the world?

The referendum was incredibly divisive – families were split between Leavers and Remainers – and the bitterness threatens to linger. For one of us, as a Chinese-Malaysian immigrant and a serial entrepreneur; the decision to leave and the racist backlash that followed made him question whether he really belonged here.

It feels very personal – and of course it is, because it is about our country: our home and our future. The Brexit vote has shown that public attitudes to business and commerce, politicians, immigration, freedom of movement and a host of related issues are more hostile than many of us had expected.

As the Labour leadership contest continues over the summer, both candidates should reflect on the vital role business can and must play as the party frames it response

There are steps we can take immediately to restore public faith in business and persuade the electorate that Labour wants to build an economy that works for all, some of which we outline in this article.

But it is important to understand how we arrived at this point. It is well-established that there has been a complete breakdown of public trust in many of the institutions and public bodies that once enjoyed widespread support, including Parliament and MPs. Some of the wilder statements issued by both sides in the referendum campaign may have led to a further erosion of that trust, but the reality is the reputation of politicians has still not recovered from the MPs expenses affair seven years after it took place.

Subsequent scandals have exposed a similar lack of faith in the banking system, the police, the media and many of the public bodies that failed to act on evidence of systemic child abuse. Michael Gove’s famous remark during the election campaign that the country “has had enough of experts” was a clumsy attempt to articulate that sense of disillusionment.

There were many reasons to vote for Brexit, including a similar disdain for politicians and bureaucrats based in Brussels. But a perception that those in power were both out of touch and somehow immune from the effects of a prolonged recession were decisive factors in Leave’s victory. 

Re-building trust in the economy is essential if we are to tackle the challenges of Brexit together, but we are facing a more challenging economic climate now than we were a year ago. Economic inequality and lack of opportunity were both motivations for voting to leave, but the economic consequences of that decision are already being felt with companies leaving the UK, reduced growth forecasts and disrupted trade relationships.

We need to develop a new economic model that generates headline growth at a national level while enabling all of us to pay our bills, afford a home, save some money and raise a family if we chose to. The challenge for a party that has always redistributed wealth and power is to ensure the prosperity we create as a country is shared by everyone.  This is where Labour has the chance to chart a different, more ethical course than this government can or will

We have seen the result of an ‘anything goes’ economy too frequently over recent years – from the behaviour of unregulated banks to the scandalous treatment of workers at Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct or the unscrupulous behaviour of Philip Green at BHS. It tends to be that the boss or the wealthy walk away with a slap on the wrist (or a knighthood) and an enormous amount of money, while the workers or the poor suffer the insecurity and devastation of the real-life impact.

It has happened in the recession, it has happened as a consequence of austerity policy and the likelihood is that if we don’t take preventative positive action, it will happen as a fallout of Brexit. Almost every economic indicator has been negative since we left the EU at the end of June.

We cannot re-build trust in communities up and down the country, unless we can persuade those people, many of whom work longer hours for less money than they did a decade ago, that we can build an economy that will bring real improvement to their lives.

Take the example of corporate misbehaviour. It is only when workers in the manufacturing or finance industry see corporate leaders held to the same ethical standard as they are that trust can be rebuilt. It is only when executives act and invest for the long-term,, that our economy will be durable and sustainable and jobs become more secure. It is only when corporations that make sizeable profits in the UK contribute to our society by paying their taxes in full that people will be convinced the economy is run for benefit of all of us, rather than the members of a small corporate elite.

There are some simple measures that could take us in the right direction:

  • Introduce custodial sentences for crimes committed by officers of a corporation, including attempts to defraud investors and employees and examples of aggressive tax avoidance and evasion. Too many white collar crimes are punished by fines or relatively lenient jail terms.
  • Establish statutory corporate tax liability for Companies registered in the UK – irrespective of where their headquarters are based - when at least 75% of their total revenues are earned in the UK.
  • Makes change to the honours system so that businessmen and women are not eligible for knighthoods if they are or have been non-domiciled in the UK for tax purposes at the time of investiture, and consider applying that ban retrospectively should their tax status change. We should only bestow the highest honours on those who play a full part in public life and pay their taxes in the UK.
  • Push ahead with Treasury proposals to fine accountants and tax advisers involved in illegal tax avoidance. Labour will support these measures if the Government introduces legislation when Parliament returns next month.

These measures may not be enough on their own to restore public faith in how the economy is run, but they signal a determination to overhaul a system that too often favours the powerful. They will help to tackle the widely held view that those with money and status have in some cases freed themselves from the obligation to act as responsible citizens

This is where Labour must take the lead as it seeks to create a more equal, fairer and more caring society in which business generates the wealth that is shared fairly amongst those who help create it.

Only an economic model that recognises that corporate growth, decent wages, workers’ rights and corporate responsibility are mutually enhancing can repair public trust and start to heal the divisions that Brexit caused.

Re-building trust in the economy

Re-building trust in the economy is essential to a successful post-Brexit future by Sonny Leong CBE, Co-Founder SME for Labour and Chair, Chinese for Labour and Tom Watson MP, Deputy...

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