Abroad minded

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2007, 12:00am

In Vancouver, a group of Canadians has set up the first Chinese political party in a western country; a native of Taiwan is the longest-serving member of the US cabinet; and a son of Shenzhen is the mayor of Melbourne and recently named 'mayor of the world'. Then there is feisty immigration lawyer Christine Lee leading the fight in Britain for better recognition for those of Chinese heritage.

Children of the Chinese diaspora are shedding their historic reluctance to enter politics in their adopted countries and learning that, in robust democracies, those who remain silent are not heard.

This change is a result of high levels of education, financial success and a sense of belonging to the new country, which have given second- and third-generation immigrants a level of comfort and self-confidence not felt by their grandparents, who preferred anonymity, hard work and saving money.

The new participants are inspired by the success of Chinese role models who have succeeded in the west - architect I.M. Pei, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo.com, Francois Cheng, member of l'Academie Francaise, and NBA basketball star Yao Ming.

What a different world we live in from the first generation of migrants to the US and Europe, who often lived on the margins of society, faced prejudice and often could not bring family members to join them. For them, the priority was survival and staying out of the public eye.

The most dramatic example of this change came in June, with the foundation of the National Alliance Party in Richmond, Vancouver, by four friends - a tour guide, a decorator, a student and a realtor named Chen Weiping, who is the party leader.

This is the first political party established by Chinese people in a western country and declares in English, French, Spanish and Chinese that it will stand up for ethnic minorities in government and support election candidates from minorities.

Mr Chen has only been in Canada for seven years. Formerly a university teacher in Beijing, he received an MBA at the University of Technology in Sydney and emigrated to Canada in 2000. He works as a realtor with Century 21 Apex International.

He said Chinese who enter mainstream parties can do little for their community because they are in such a minority and these parties can't heed the interests of the Chinese.

'Because the Chinese of Canada do not have their own political party, no-one truly protects our interests. Many Chinese come to Canada with high academic qualifications not recognised here,' he said. 'They can only work in a supermarket selling fish and vegetables.

'Disheartened, many return home. This is a big loss of talent. We must resolve this problem through our own efforts.'

The party is open to people of all ethnic backgrounds. At its first news conference on July 25, one of the four speakers was an Indian-Canadian named Harpreet Purba.

Of Canada's population of 33 million, more than one million are of Chinese origin, including 400,000 in Toronto and 350,000 in Vancouver. By 2017, this number is projected to reach 1.8 million.

Reaction to the new party has been mixed. 'It is very positive that a political party will encourage people to be concerned about society,' said Michael Byers, a professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia. 'Founding a political party is their right in a democratic society.'

But critics say the party will only serve to widen the gap between Chinese and mainstream Canadian society and have the opposite effect to that desired by its leaders, by isolating Chinese from other members of the community.

South of the border, the model for Chinese is Elaine Chao, Secretary of Labour and the first Asian-American to serve in a US cabinet. With the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defence last December, Ms Chao became the longest-serving member of President George W. Bush's cabinet and the fifth-longest-serving secretary of labour.

Born in March 1953, the eldest of six girls, she emigrated to the US when she was eight. She took the route most favoured by overseas Chinese - education. Ms Chao has a BA in economics from Mount Holyoke College and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

After working with Citigroup and Bank of America, she held senior positions in the Department of Transportation, headed the Peace Corps for two years and was then chief executive of United Way of America, one of the country's biggest charities.

Ms Chao has for the past four years organised internships in her department for almost 400 students, many of whom have been Asian-Americans. For the past 10 years, a youth leadership programme set up by Asian-Americans in the government has sent Asian-American students to the White House and other departments during the summer, with the aim of producing more Elaine Chaos.

As Chinese people become more active, so they are attracting the interest of the presidential candidates. In May, Senator Hillary Clinton launched an Asian-American voter outreach programme. There is much to do. In the 2004 presidential election, only 37 per cent of Asian-Americans voted, against 68 per cent of blacks and 73 per cent of whites.

For Chinese parents, the priority has been education, so Chinese people have a higher level of college education than whites or blacks. Parents teach children to study hard, keep a low profile and stay out of politics - and out of trouble. They argued that, as a minority, they did not have the numbers to influence public policy.

But Ms Lee said they have the numbers. 'The Chinese have been in Britain for 150 years and are the third-largest ethnic minority in the country. The Chinese catering trade contributes #1.5 billion a year to the UK Treasury. Yet there are no established Chinese voices in British politics,' she said.

'Our place in Britain has not been recognised by the British government. We need to take action and send Chinese people into the forefront of politics to act as our representatives, so we have a voice and will no longer be ignored.'

Ms Lee launched a campaign last October called 'Integration of British Chinese into politics' at the House of Lords.

The protest was against the Immigration Asylum and Nationality Bill of 2005, which included a provision to increase the number of years before permanent residence can be granted from four to five years. Since this provision was retroactive, it meant many Chinese who had work permits and skilled migrant visas and planned to settle would be forced to leave.

Ms Lee was one of the main organisers in the Chinese community against the bill, which obtained signatures from more than 10,000 people and persuaded Chinese to write in protest to their members of parliament. She also organised a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament.

A native of Hong Kong, she emigrated to Northern Ireland with her family and was the only Chinese pupil at a boarding school for girls, some of whom did not welcome such an unfamiliar face.

She established her own law firm, specialising in immigration, in Birmingham, with offices in London and Guangzhou. She also founded and is chairwoman of the North London China Association.

'Many British-born Chinese have integrated into mainstream society, as young professionals and high achievers. But they think they do not need politics and politics does not need them. This sort of thinking is wrong,' she said.

'We need to introduce them to politics, which will give them status and power. If we do not plant the seed now, we will lose another generation.'

The only Chinese person in a national parliament in Britain is Anna Lo Man-wah, elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in March, as a member of the moderate Alliance Party. Ms Lo, 56, emigrated to Northern Ireland in 1974 and worked as a social worker and chairwoman of the N.I. Chinese Welfare Association.

'As an outsider, it is hard to understand the political culture here. Chinese have been looked down on here. No one truly represented their interests,' Ms Lo said.

In Australia, two ethnic Chinese men have run major cities: Alfred Huang was lord mayor of Adelaide from 2000 to 2003, and John So has been mayor of Melbourne since 2001. Despite speaking English with a thick Cantonese accent, Mr So has become popular, with songs, T-shirts and websites devoted to him. After the successful staging of the 2006 Commonwealth games, Mr So was chosen by online voters as World Mayor for 2006, for his work on the environment and creating harmony among a population stemming from 140 different countries.

Born in Shenzhen, Mr So moved to Hong Kong when he was a child and to Melbourne at the age of 17, earning a Diploma of Education and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Melbourne. He campaigned strongly against the white Australia policy.

In 1973 he went into business and has a stake in many city bars and restaurants. As befits a mayor in a sports-mad country, he holds a season ticket for one of the city's Australian Rules football clubs as well as the soccer club.