In any democratic country, when public policies appear to ignore the needs of any particular group, or affect them more adversely than others, it is common for the group in question to speak up and put pressure on political leaders to either change course or at least give an explanation for the apparent discrimination. This is certainly true with groups that constitute an ethnic minority.
In the UK, Blacks and Asians (covering those from the Indian sub-continent) are rightly vocal about their treatment before the law which is meant to apply to us all equally. Their concerns are in turn championed by Black and Asian politicians and other public figures with a shared ethnic background. When it comes to the Chinese, however, despite being the largest ethnic minority group after Blacks and Asians, all's quiet on the eastern front.
Blacks and Asians do not have an easy task in breaking down the neglect, intentional or otherwise, they have to deal with. But they get to be elected MPs, they are routinely invited to speak on programmes such as Newsnight and Question Time, and their concerns are reported by the mainstream media. By contrast, the Chinese have continued to live up to being the Invisible Minority.
Only 30% of Chinese register to vote (2008 figures), and they have the lowest turnout for all ethnic groups: 45% (British Election Studies, 2005). This means that for every 100 Chinese who are eligible to vote, 86 would actually not do so. And if almost 90% of Chinese cannot be bothered to vote, why would politicians pay much attention to their concerns? And what little encouragement that must be to any Chinese thinking of standing for public office.
There are possible explanations for this political reticence. Many Chinese in Britain have come from Hongkong and China, where a tradition in electoral politics has been lacking. It is not uncommon to be suspicious and anxious about getting involved with politics, for fear of upsetting those with power. Culturally, self-promotion is frowned upon, and very few feel at ease about putting themselves forward to contest what are often seen as highly confrontational electoral campaigns. Furthermore, unlike other minority ethnic groups, there is no large concentration of Chinese voters in any area in this country. They amount to barely 1% in the whole of the UK, and only 1.5% even in London, with the highest concentration of 2.3% in Barnet.
Does this mean that things can't change? Certainly not. Blacks and Asians have been through decades of mobilisation before they made their presence felt on the political landscape. The Chinese in Britain can learn to become a political force too. In addition to drawing from the experience of other minority ethnic groups, Chinese in other English-speaking countries have their lessons to offer. For example, in the 2011 San Francisco mayoral elections, while the general turnout was 40%, for the Chinese the figure was over 50%. Out of the 16 candidates, 5 were of Chinese descent. And it was Ed Lee who won and became the first ever Chinese to be elected mayor of the city.
Admittedly Chinese constitute nearly 21% of the population of San Francisco. But we can also look at examples from Canada's 2011 elections to its House of Commons. One candidate won against the odds of a heavy national swing against his party (the Liberals), another won for the New Democratic Party to become the youngest female MP in Canadian history. Both were Chinese securing victory in seats with barely 1% Chinese population.
A combination of the dedicated activism of a few and inspirational outreach to the many appear to be the key to promoting the political engagement of potential Chinese voters. In short, we need leadership and civic education – the latter raising awareness of why politics is needed to address the problems we face, and the former providing a focus for our political actions. There is no shortage of issues that matter especially to Chinese in Britain: persistent racial stereotyping; racist taunts and harassment; discriminatory treatment by immigration officials; being paid less than people with comparable qualifications and experience; neglect of housing and healthcare needs of elderly Chinese; and economic and political relationship with China. Amongst the younger generation, now is the time to start thinking what public role to play to transform our concern with these issues into a political agenda.
By Henry Benedict Tam.
Dr. Henry B. Tam is Director, Cambridge University's Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy, and visiting professor at Birkbeck College, London University. His books include Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship (Macmillan, 1998); Kuan's Wonderland (a novel); and Against Power Inequalities (available as a free download from the Equality Trust: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/against-power-inequalities). He can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org