On 30th November 2023, Manchester Lit & Phil’s The Chinese in Britain – the latest chapter, featuring Newsnight Economics Editor Ben Chu, brought a packed audience up to speed about an often-overlooked but hugely significant influx of migrants.
The event came just one day after significant cuts to the Newsnight programme had been announced. Quizzed on this, Chu expressed his wish for the BBC’s current affairs output to return to fact-based reporting, and to put less focus on the talking heads debating format which it has been leaning into recently.
Chu began his talk on Chinese migration by outlining the numbers — his specialty — and I sensed that the true scale surprised many in the room: over 120,000 Hong Kongers of a wide range of ages have settled in the UK under the British National (Overseas) visa route in the past two years, and estimates suggest 300,000 BN(O) holders could arrive over the next few years, according to think tank British Future.
Placing this into context, Chu discussed other, far smaller migrations of Chinese people to Britain since the 19th century. Keen to highlight shortcomings in the treatment of previous generations of Chinese migrants, he drew parallels between the compulsory repatriation of Chinese merchant seamen in the post-war periods of the 1920s and ’50s and the treatment of the Windrush generation. The plight of the Chinese seamen, however, seems almost forgotten today.
One of the key comparisons made by Chu, and perhaps an answer as to why the repatriated seamen have received such little recognition, is the comparison between earlier generations of politically-disengaged Chinese migrants and the politically active, educated and wealthy BN(O) cohort. This shift in the nature of Chinese migrants holds potentially wide-ranging consequences for the future politics and economy of Britain.
Amidst an audience of equally keen attendees, I unfortunately did not get the chance to ask Chu for his perspective on why this massive intake of migrants — already one of the largest ever — appears to have received relatively little media coverage and political airtime. For my part, I think many factors are at play. Amongst them, this particular group of migrants’ high education level and apparent low crime rate, along with their accompanying wealth and economic potential, make their arrival much more tolerable to the British people, many of whom are otherwise extremely tired and wary of mass immigration.
A poll carried out in February 2022 by Ipsos/British Future showed 73% support, and only 10% oppose the migration of Hong Kongers through the BN(O) scheme, while a YouGov poll from earlier this month found 41% consider immigration and asylum to be one of the top three issues facing the country. It has long been an important issue for a significant proportion of society and I find it intriguing that, in this context, there has been very little opposition to such a large wave of inward migration.
Apart from BN(O) migrants, Chu also touched on the sharp increase in the numbers of Chinese students attending British universities. He challenged the stereotypes and “fear-mongering” surrounding suspicions of ties between these students and the Chinese government, putting forward his experience interviewing a handful of Chinese students in Glasgow as indication that concerns are unfounded. To my mind though, anxieties about the intentions of certain individuals within the large community of Chinese students in British universities — at a time when many are worried about the threat of foreign interference not being given enough consideration by the government, media and security services — should not be dismissed too readily.
In short, The Chinese in Britain – the latest chapter brought great insight into an underreported phenomenon and prompted all in attendance to reflect on both the past treatment of Chinese migrants, as well as the impact that the recent influx could have on contemporary Britain.