What does Britain’s ‘silent community’ think about Brexit?

The British Chinese population is often dismissed as a ‘silent’ or ‘hidden’ community – but a politically conscious second generation holds strong views on the EU referendum.

Hsiao-Hung Pai
23 June 2016
London Chinatown, Anthony Devlin/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

London Chinatown, Anthony Devlin/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved."It is all about which side of globalisation you're on," a friend – who I have always regarded as to the left of the UK Labour party – recently told me. "Those who haven't gained from globalisation want Brexit. Those who have benefited from globalisation want Remain, such as migrant workers." This is how pervasively toxic Brexit's anti-migration argument has been, that even some of the trade unionists on the left aren't immune to it.

There is no doubt that the referendum debate has been manufactured and dominated by the right throughout, where migration is their central issue. The extent to which how fear of an imagined threat has been intensified by the Leave campaign is evident in everything from the increasing expression of anti-immigrant sentiments in predominantly white areas, Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant “Breaking Point” poster, through to the mainstreaming of ‘take our country back’-style rhetoric.

‘Lexit’ has been given no room in the mainstream media, and its class analysis has not in any way influenced public opinion. And it's deeply worrying to see a section of trade unionists in the Leave camp expressing ideas that bear some resemblance to those on the right. Some of the 'Trade Unionists against the EU' campaigners, for instance, have adopted Brexit's anti-migration and border control language.

Paul Embery, regional secretary of the Fire Brigades Union and national organiser of Trade Unionists against the EU, for instance, talks about migration in a way that carries little difference to the right: "Of course we must place responsibility at the door of bad governments and unscrupulous employers. But for anyone claiming to speak for working people to stubbornly ignore the negative consequences for working-class communities of EU-driven mass migration...is inexcusable."

Just who are ‘British workers’? Do they include ethnic minority workers who may or may not be born and bred British? Not for Brexiters. Nigel Farage has argued for an end to the anti-discriminatory legislation in Britain in place since 2015, which would embed institutional racism in the workplace.

Meanwhile, the EU referendum is not a 50-50 vote among Britain's ethnic minorities. Recent research by the British Election Study suggests that around two-thirds of ethnic minority voters will vote to stay in the EU. This is primarily because they fear a further right-turn of politics.

But the Leave campaign builds its support by creating divisions, and has manufactured a false future scenario in which Brexit benefits non-EU immigrants. This myth has fooled some in ethnic minority communities into supporting Leave, most of whom mirror the misconceptions of their white counterparts and justify their preference for Brexit on the basis of their concerns about immigration.

Don Flynn, director of Migrants Rights Network, told me that long-settled immigrants seem to share all the reservations about immigration as native-born citizens, as recent polling from Mori suggests. "Around 70% of the people who came before 1970 want to see it reduced either by 'a lot' or at least 'a little'...The BME communities tend to be over-represented in poorer neighbourhoods across the country and these are often the places where new migrants are settling. The extent to which there is competition between settled groups and the newcomers is therefore most likely to the felt in these areas, fuelling support for Brexit."

And let's not forget that this government's immigration policies have, for years, made life hell for ethnic minorities and non-EU migrant workers. Its latest immigration bill has hit non-EU workers the hardest. It has given powers to the authorities to search migrant workers and seize their wages, and given landlords and institutions the power to act as immigration staff in identifying migrants' immigration status, and in doing so, criminalising ethnic minority and migrant communities.

In the British Chinese population, often described a ‘silent community’ whose members are said to not ‘kick up a fuss’ about injustices against them, opinions are much divided. Some do hold strong views in favour of Remain, particularly the well-educated, more politically-aware second generation of British Chinese. 

Steven Ip, Editor of British-Chinese magazine Nee Hao, reveals that in their poll for Chinese in Britain, of the 1,000 people they surveyed, 42% opted for Remain and 35% Leave (23% undecided). "The Leave side represents mostly business interests, with newly immigrated Chinese hoping for Britain's closer trade links with China and Chinese restaurant business owners wanting a level playing field for employing workers," Steven Ip says. "Those who opted for Remain are concerned about two main issues: the economy, and 'whether the country will get more racist if there was an exit'." 

Sonny Leong, Chair of Chinese for Labour, tells me: "The British Chinese community have been a fabric of British society since the turn of the century and if we were to leave, we will have a government led by Boris Johnson, in bed with Nigel Farage, who are friends of discrimination and division, not progress and protection for ethnic minorities."

Daniel York, a second-generation British Chinese actor and supporter of Chinese for Labour, feels very concerned about the rising power of the right. "We're at a very important crossroads. The far right is resurgent all across Europe. The argument for Brexit is essentially xenophobic and panders to all those prejudices.... We need to pull together, not further apart."

"Interestingly my own parents are voting Brexit and their arguments sooner or later amount to 'I'm fed up with these foreigners telling us what to do' (my Chinese father says this!). Ironically, if we close the door on Europe, we actually open the door to more prejudice, more division and, yes, more actual racism."

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