Immigration has always been a contentious issue in Britain, so why is it different this time, as the UK opens a path to citizenship for millions of Hong Kong residents. Ministers swell with pride as they speak of profound ties of history and friendship.
Hong Kong Chinese are seen as a model minority, successors to the status of Ugandan Asians, a ‘thrifty’ , ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘family-oriented’ community who will skimp to send their children to private schools and boost Britain’s economic fortunes, while quietly demonstrating that other ethnic minorities could be equally successful if they worked a little harder.
Journalists have been briefed that Priti Patel, daughter of Ugandan Asians, sees this a ‘personal’ and a recent headline in the Times made the link explicit, ‘Hong Kong crisis: Ugandan Asians offer golden example’.
Britain is doing the right thing, but the ‘good migrant’ narrative coalescing around the Hong Kong Chinese is risky for them as well as for other British people of colour.
The impulses behind this narrative combine the imperial nostalgia that helped power Brexit, an importing of US conservative politics, and a racialised caricature of why the Asian tiger economies – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea – have been so successful.
First, the imperial element. Hong Kong’s achievement is seen as an extension of empire, based on the attractions of the English language and rule of law. As Sam Bowman, Adam Smith Institute fellow put it: “under British rule, it enjoyed property rights and rules of law, which made it a magnet for Chinese refugees fleeing the communist regime”.
There is however, a grain of truth in this account, though it ignores the crucial geographic and economic facts that underpin Hong Kong’s position today. The territory is the conduit between global capital and China’s largely closed financial system. This role will continue to fuel Hong Kong’s economy even if many of its people leave for Britain, and it is not a business they can export with them,
Both Hong Kong and Singapore adapted elements of their colonial heritage and made them work for their economic benefit. Both places have also deployed colonial laws to repress their people. Last September, the Hong Kong democracy activist Tam Tak-chi, a former radio presenter known as Fast Beat, was charged under a sedition law, the Crimes Ordinance, brought in by the British to curb dissent. If we are going to remember imperial history, let’s do so in full.
Second, being generous to Hongkongers neatly complements the Conservative party’s new obsession, a hawkish attitude to China. The China Research Group, launched last year by a group of Conservative MPs, makes valid criticisms of China’s human rights abuses and Beijing’s cavalier attitude to international law. But the launch of this group is also a signal of a pricklier and more combative turn in British conservative attitudes to Beijing, echoing the hostility to China in US Republican circles.
Third, there is a simplified version of the tigers’ story that emphasises the ‘natural’ abilities of’hardworking’ people allied to Confucian culture. This is a modern-day version of old-fashioned stereotypes about colonial races.
In 1915, an Australian management consultant who had just toured factories in an Asian country fretted about the quality of its workforce. The workers, he concluded, were ‘ a very satisfied easy-going race who reckon time is no object’. The country in question was Japan, and the story, told in Ha Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans, is a reminder of the fluidity of the cultural narratives we use to explain the world.
The success of places like Hong Kong and Singapore has to do with effective governance and astute economic policy decisions, such as containerising their ports earlier than competitor nations and focusing on export-oriented industrialisation Harnessing the talent and efforts of their labour force is a part of this story. But this, too, is a consequence of policy rather than innate genius. An exceptional education is part of the answer here, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea all rank among the highest-performing school systems in the world, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Hongkongers will reshape our societies in ways that we can’t predict. Postwar Commonwealth migration, including the arrival of Ugandan Asians, helped bring about a reckoning with race relations that sought to tackle Britain’s deep-seated racism. More recently, eastern European migration was exploited to drum up anti-EU sentiment.
Hongkongers seeking a new life in Britain are not economic assets. The reasons to welcome them is, simply, because it is just.