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Saturday, Nov 28, 2020

The British Chinese running in the 2019 UK general election

Nine candidates have been selected by the main parties, two less than the UK election in 2015. Among them is Alan Mak, who made history as the first Chinese elected to the UK parliament

Whatever the result of the UK’s fraught and unpredictable general election later this month, the new parliament, even if it is a hung one, is likely to be the most ethnically diverse in British history.

If each party wins the constituencies that it won in the 2017 vote – 52 more South Asian, Afro-Caribbean and other minority candidates will move to the green benches of the House Commons, according to the think tank British Future. What will that mean for the candidates of the half million strong Chinese diaspora in Britain?

There has only ever been one ethnic Chinese MP: UK-born Chinese-Malaysian Alan Mak, elected for the Conservatives in 2015.
The community has suffered from being both diverse and disperse, lacking visibility in the media and public life and scattered across the country, instead of living in tight-knit communities like other ethnicities where block votes can get representatives elected.

“As a community we have are seriously under-represented in parliament,” said Edmond Yeo, the first ethnic Chinese person to be elected as a councillor in Ealing, west London for the Conservative Party. “Our voice needs to be heard too. It surely must happen on December 12.”

But even though nine candidates from the Chinese diaspora in Britain have been selected by the main parties, that is still two less than in 2015. Only two of them are standing in “safe” seats for their parties.

Challenges aside, there was a buzz of excitement at the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative Party launch event in west London in November for the local candidate – Wang Xingang. A group of Chinese students from Imperial College had joined party activists to learn more about how democracy in the UK works.

Hailing from a rural area and educated in Beijing, Wang, an engineer, accountant and author of a book on how to be a product controller, has been in the UK since 2001. This will be his third attempt at becoming a member of parliament.

He is one of five Tory candidates of Chinese origin, the largest Chinese slate in the election, helped by the parliamentary lobby group Conservative Friends of the Chinese (CFC), credited with helping the party win over the British Chinese community.

In the run up to the 2015 vote, the online polling company YouGov estimated that 52 per cent of Chinese Britons voted Tory.
His west London constituency is largely affluent but voted resoundingly to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, as did Wang, and has a long-standing Labour MP.

Wang is now towing the “get Brexit done” party line and his supporters say he is well placed to encourage Anglo-China trade for the post Brexit world.

Wang himself says if they work together the Chinese community can tip the vote in the UK.

“One of the most important things is collaboration, you can’t get it done yourself. We Chinese need to work together.”

Another Tory candidate present at Wang’s launch was Johnny Luk, who was born in Britain to Hong Kong and Taiwanese parents. Although he is not yet 30, Luk has worked in several government departments including the Department for Exiting the European Union, writing the first draft of the fisheries section of Theresa May’s deal.

Luk also voted to remain in 2016, but said he would support a government that took Britain out of the EU without getting a deal.

A champion rower, a sport he took up to overcome “the identity crisis I have had all my life”, he is standing in the affluent Hampstead and Kilburn constituency where he hopes the fear of alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party will help the Tories win this traditionally Labour seat with a large Jewish population.

There are also Chinese Conservative candidates standing in Manchester and Birmingham, and of course Mak, who represents the very English “Leave” seat of Havant on the southern English coast.

He did not respond to a request for an interview with South China Morning Post.

However, in 2015 he told Post Magazine: “I am not standing for the Chinese population of Britain. I am standing for the people of Havant and my country”.

The only Liberal Democrat candidate is George Lee, standing for Westminster North. A “Remainer”, Lee was born in Hong Kong and moved to the UK as a 10-year-old who spoke no English.

His first job was working in industrial relations between the UK’s Ministry of Defence and Portsmouth’s naval yard dockers, the first Chinese person to join the ministry, just one of many firsts.

At the age of 19 he joined the police. He rose in the ranks to become the first ethnic Chinese chief inspector, was a founding member of the Black Police Association and become a much sought after specialist in anti-triad operations.

Later, he has worked as a technology entrepreneur and was instrumental in setting up the UK’s first online bank and mobile phone services.

Lee first stood for parliament in 2010 at the invitation of then Conservative Party leader David Cameron.

“I never voted for Maggie Thatcher – I voted for Tory for the first time in 2010 and the candidate was me,” he said.

He didn’t stand in 2015 because he had been invited to do a PhD at Cambridge University on building trust in the police force in India and China.

His cousin is Raymond Lau Chi-keung, Hong Kong International Airport’s security chief since 2013.

It was Brexit that made Lee change his mind about the Conservative Party.

“In 2016, I was really annoyed by the referendum because it is going to be an economic disaster,” he said. “I would never be in a party who aren’t not morally correct – they are all interested in their personal career not the country.”

At the other end of the Brexit spectrum is Catherine Cui who is standing in the east London borough of Poplar and Limehouse, which has been a Labour stronghold for at least a century, for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

Born in Qingdao, a major port city in China’s Shandong Province, she is the daughter of a peanut exporter who started her life in the UK as a student at Cambridge University.

She worked for Goldman Sachs and the Bank of England where she witnessed first-hand the euro zone crisis.

That, and immigration policies which Cui believed gave EU citizens an unfair advantage over better qualified people from elsewhere, convinced her to join the Brexit Party.

Cui denies allegations that her party is racist, pointing out it has one of the most diverse slates of all UK parties.

“The EU is giving privileges to European people so what do you call that?” she said. “I don’t call that racist, but it is inequality.”

Farage has pledged to cut net migration to 50,000 – a big drop from 226,000, the figure for the year ending March 2019.

She hopes her contacts in Canary Wharf and that her business savvy will help her win the constituency has been held by the Labour Party for a hundred years.

She runs Super-in, her Cayman Islands-listed company that markets British heritage brands in China.

Even though hers is one of the hardest election fights, she says she has 30 people in her team, including three Chinese, two Italians and one French. She has also hired a public relations specialist, a former Sunday Times journalist.

Cui says the local area needs investment.

“I know all the CEOS here to put money in a venture capital fund. I also plan to bring investment from China,” she said.
“I am the only one of the six candidates in this constituency who could knock on the door of the boss at HSBC and he will give me at least 10 minutes.”

Cui said she could never be in the Conservative Party.

“I like honesty too much to be a Tory, I like to stay true to myself,” she said.

And what about Farage’s close ties to US President Donald Trump?

“I love both Farage and Trump very much,” she said. “A lot of people in China love Trump because he’s a no-nonsense businessman.”

There are only two Chinese heritage candidates on the left, Emma Chan, a doctor specialising in sexual health standing for the Green Party in Tottenham, north London, another Labour stronghold, and Labour’s Sarah Owen, a trade unionist who is standing in Luton North, a car manufacturing town north of London that has seen considerable economic decline over the past few years.

It is the second time Owen, a trade unionist, has stood as an MP and is expected to win. But because of the loss of jobs at Vauxhall to mainland Europe, the town voted heavily to leave the EU and she cannot afford to be complacent.

Members of the Chinese diaspora account for around 4 per cent of the population in her constituency and could help. But as she said: “there are so many different voices and opinions in our community”.

Owen is also chair of the pressure group Chinese for Labour, which is supporting the rights of Hong Kong BN (O) passport holders to come to the UK, but has struggled to have candidates either stand or be selected in the UK general election.

Owen said that many of the members of Chinese for Labour work in the public service, as opposed to business.

She believes Brexit has had a strong impact on the racial climate, witnessed first-hand by her own mother, a Chinese nurse from Malaysia.

“Boris Johnson can say get Brexit done but it’s what comes next that people should be concerned about,” she said.

Her fear is the UK could fall through the cracks of an economic cold war between the US and China “and the people who lose out will be the ordinary workers”.

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