Chinese vote up for grabs in British polls

Chinese vote up for grabs in British polls
Chinatown in London.

The Chinese community could be a game-changer in Britain's elections next May because, ironically, many of them are not registered to vote.

According to the Electoral Commission's report in 2005, about a third of the Chinese in Britain have not registered to vote. This is far higher than the rate for the majority white population (6 per cent) and the average rate for ethnic minorities (17 per cent).

For politicians running in what is expected to be a tight election race, capturing the Chinese vote represents untapped potential.

"There is no established voting pattern for the Chinese," says Mr Michael Wilkes, vice-chair of The British Chinese Project (BCP), a voluntary organisation encouraging Chinese people to vote. "It's up for grabs."

The 2013 Annual Population Survey estimates that ethnic Chinese make up 0.5 per cent of the British population of 63 million. Despite their small number, they have the power to influence results on polling day.

A recent report by Operation Black Vote suggests that black and minority ethnic voters could swing outcomes in 168 constituencies, or a quarter of the 650 parliamentary seats available. And in some of these marginal seats, where the incumbent won in 2010 by a slim majority, it is the Chinese who form the largest ethnic minority.

For instance, in Hendon, which is in north London, the seat is held by a Conservative MP with a majority of 106 votes. The Chinese population in that constituency is 3,961.

"It's particularly important next year because elections will be tight, and all parties will be seeking an edge," says Mr Wilkes, 23, who is half-Chinese. "So we say to politicians, 'You have to listen. Because they (the Chinese) have the power to win the vote for you'."

The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats have all established close associations with the Chinese community dating from the 1990s. "In the last 18 months, we have organised about 15 meetings between senior Conservatives (including Cabinet ministers) and the community," says Mr Jackson Ng, director of Conservative Friends of the Chinese.

Mr Ng, 31, whose father is Singaporean, is one of seven Chinese on the party's approved candidates list for the May elections.

Tackling community issues is a key strategy. Ms Merlene Toh Emerson, co-founder of the Chinese Liberal Democrats, won Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's support for a campaign to build a permanent memorial to the Chinese Labour Corps: 96,000 farm workers recruited from China in 1916 to work for Britain in World War I. Originally from Singapore, Ms Toh, 54, ran as a Liberal Democrat candidate in 2010.

Another group, Chinese for Labour, recently met Ms Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, to discuss immigration policy, student visas and the rising incidence of racism, says Mr Sonny Leong, chair of Chinese for Labour and originally from Malaysia.

Politicians are going on a charm offensive. Last year, the Conservative Party issued tips for those hitting the campaign trail, including:

Do present any business cards or campaigning material with both hands; and

If eating with chopsticks, please be aware it is impolite to skewer food, to gesture or point.

Still, the Chinese will need to be lured out to vote. "The Chinese like to moan and whinge," says Mr Leong. "But whether they will stick their heads above the parapet is another matter."

He believes the level of political engagement depends on where the Chinese voter originally came from. Hong Kong is run by a governor and does not have universal suffrage, he says.

"Those from Malaysia and Singapore are more used to participating in public life and are more politically engaged," he adds.

Traditionally, Chinese families prioritise education, financial security and self-reliance, so they have worked hard and kept their heads down in their adopted country. This instils caution.

"This year's voter registration form requires one to state his National Insurance (Britain's social security) number. Many Chinese are reluctant to disclose too much information due to a distrust of authority, so they end up not registering to vote," says Mr Leong.

Ms Toh says having Chinese role models in politics would help raise voter turnout. The only Chinese face in the British Parliament is Conservative Nathaniel Wei, 37, who was appointed a life peer in the House of Lords in 2010.

Ms Anna Lo, 64, a member of the General Assembly of Northern Ireland since 2007, was the first ethnic minority and Chinese to be elected to political office in Northern Ireland. In May this year, she said she was leaving politics because of racism by Irish loyalists.

The situation could soon change. Second- and third-generation Chinese raised and educated in a lively democracy such as Britain's are more vocal and politically aware and are pursuing careers in public life by studying political science, for example, or joining the civil service.

"2015 is the era of Chinese politicians," says Mr Leong.

Labour has long boasted it will be the first to get a Chinese MP in the Commons, though all three mainstream parties have confirmed they will be fielding ethnic Chinese candidates.

Courting the British Chinese is also a strategic move for the country's business, says Lord Wei, with China on the rise.

Recent hardline anti-immigration rhetoric from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and tighter immigration rules in response might also rouse Chinese voters.

Ironically, though, Chinese voters could vote against immigration. Mr Wilkes relates an exchange with a Chinese man at a voter registration event. "He said, 'Are you going to tell me who to vote for?' When I said no, it was up to him, he replied: 'I'm going to vote UKIP. Because these Polish immigrants are taking our Chinese jobs.'"

Making a name for themselves

Lord Wei

A former management consultant and social entrepreneur, Nathaniel Wei came to the British public's attention in May 2010 when he was recruited by Prime Minister David Cameron as an unpaid adviser to the government's Big Society initiative to empower communities.

A month later, he was introduced to the House of Lords as Baron Wei of Shoreditch and appointed a life peer.

He is the third person of Chinese descent to be appointed to the House of Lords, after Lydia Dunn, a senior politician in Hong Kong, and the late Michael Chan, a consultant paediatrician from Singapore.

He is also chairman of Conservative Friends of the Chinese and chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on East Asian Businesses.

Anna Lo

The first ethnic minority and Chinese to be elected to the General Assembly of Northern Ireland, in 2007, Ms Lo has lived in Northern Ireland since 1974. She started English classes for Chinese people there in 1978.

In 1999, she was awarded an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for services to ethnic minorities.

In May this year, she said she was leaving politics, and possibly Northern Ireland altogether, because of continued racial abuse from loyalists.

Mulan Foundation Network

Named after the legendary heroine who led the Chinese army in ancient China, the Mulan Foundation Network began life as a charity on Oct 31 last year. It aims to recognise and honour the achievements of Chinese women in Britain and build a global network of successful women.

Its founders are Mr Sonny Leong, Dr Ng Mee Ling - both originally from Malaysia - and Lady Katy Tse Blair, founder and CEO of the Islington Chinese Association and sister-in-law of former prime minister Tony Blair.

A recent foundation awards dinner paid tribute to 12 women for their contribution in various fields. Singaporean ophthalmologist Heng Ling Zhi was among the winners, recognised for her contribution to science and technology.

This article was first published on Nov 17, 2014.
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