Chinese Scots as divided as rest of country over independence

Like the rest of Scotland, its Chinese community is split on whether to back union or independence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 11:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 August, 2014, 5:15am

Yen Hongmei Jin knows exactly how she's going to vote when Scotland goes to the polls next month for its historic referendum on independence.

The young mother-of-two believes firmly that Scotland should separate from the United Kingdom and become an independent country.

As the only Scottish National Party councillor born in China, Jin has spent the past few months speaking at political rallies and canvassing voters, including other members of the Chinese community, to persuade them to back her party's view that Scotland should break free.

"We can set our own priorities and we wouldn't have to live with policies created in London which aren't right for us," she said.

But more Chinese Scots favour staying with the UK, says Dr Xiaobai Shen, a senior lecturer in international and Chinese business at the University of Edinburgh. "I firmly believe Scotland is better off if it stays in the United Kingdom," said the Edinburgh resident who emigrated in 1991.

"Many Chinese people I meet work for the big financial companies and are worried that if Scotland became independent, the branch might move south and they might either lose their job or have to relocate," she said.

The debate has become increasingly fractious as the September 18 referendum approaches, with many people wondering if an independent Scotland could be better off.

Scotland has the ability to run itself and to be a successful country

Dumfries councillor Jin is typical of some in the Chinese community who identify first with being Scottish, as the country gave them a home and a living. They are strongly sympathetic to the values of tolerance, equality and fairness that they believe are more esteemed in their new homeland than in the rest of the UK, and think Scotland can and should govern itself.

But Shen and other members of the Chinese community fear that by breaking away from the 300-year-old Union, Scotland would be just one more small nation among many.

They worry that without being part of the UK, Scotland would lose international prestige and its appeal to the business world. They also fear that large corporations would pull out, taking thousands of jobs with them and that the economy would crumble.

"It is extremely risky, based on romantic visions about independence," Shen said.

"The economic and political risks are enormous. For instance, starting up a full state machine is hugely costly."

A survey published yesterday shows that support for independence appears to be gaining ground. The survey, by Survation, a major market research agency, found that, excluding those undecided, 47 per cent of 1,001 respondents would vote "Yes" to independence, compared to 53 per cent who would vote "No".

It is extremely risky, based on romantic visions about independence

On March 4, research company Ipsos Mori said that 57 per cent of 1,001 likely voters surveyed in February favoured staying in the UK, while 32 per cent said they would choose independence. Eleven per cent were undecided.

According to the 2011 census, nearly 23,000 of the 5.3 million people living in Scotland were born in China or Hong Kong. Taking account of second generation Chinese, 33,706 people described themselves as Chinese, Chinese Scottish or Chinese British; the community has more than doubled in size in the last 10 years.

The vote offers many of them a chance to play a role in their country's future and, for many, to take part in their first national election.

"A lot of the Chinese community living in Scotland has never voted in their lives here," Jin said. "They don't know who to vote for. They've had no contact with politicians and mostly their concerns are practical. Will they still get their pensions when they retire? Will they still get a free bus pass and free prescriptions?

"I tell them, 'This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it's not just for people born and bred in Scotland. It's for us too'," she said.

Scotland was an independent country until 1707, when substantial debts led it to seek help from London. Despite its ties to Britain, many Scots have long been frustrated with the union.

When the nationalist Scottish National Party formed a majority government in 2011, it began laying plans to break from the larger kingdom.

Prime Minister David Cameron has sought to keep Scotland in the fold, saying a united UK would be stronger, but his words haven't swayed many. Cameron's Conservative Party is unpopular in Scotland, whose heavy industry suffered under Tory rule.

Jin, 28, was born in Zhejiang province and moved to Dumfries in southern Scotland in 2003. She previously worked at the Citizens Advice Bureau, assisting people with social security claim problems and other issues.

She said the hardships faced by many unemployed Scots convinced her that not only would the nation be better off as an independent state but that it would offer more protection to those less well off.

She pointed out that Westminster, which controls welfare legislation, introduced social security reforms, unpopular in Scotland, including a change to housing benefit, dubbed the "bedroom tax". The reform reduces payments by 14 per cent to unemployed and disabled claimants living in social housing who have been assessed as having a spare bedroom in their home.

"I believe Scotland would be a wealthier country if we became independent. It would also, I believe, be a fairer one,'' she said. "In my opinion people in Scotland appreciate values like social justice and equality more than those in the rest of the UK."

Most Chinese residents arrived in Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s from Hong Kong, often opening restaurants to earn a living and hoping to create better futures for their families. A second wave of immigration in the late 1980s and 1990s came from mainland China. They settled in the major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, with smaller groups in Aberdeen, Dundee and Stirling.

Many Chinese who arrived in Scotland in the last 30 years came to study and later found jobs in the financial sector working for Edinburgh-based firms such as The Royal Bank of Scotland, Scottish Widows and Standard Life, Shen said.

To vote in the referendum you must be a British citizen or a Commonwealth or European Union citizen over the age of 16. The government doesn't track voter registration by ethnicity.

Regardless of background, the referendum has divided families across the country.

Sam Chau project manager of a centre for the elderly in Glasgow's Chinese community, said he strongly favours Scottish independence, a position that puts him at odds with his relatives.

Born in Hong Kong, Chau, 60, moved to the UK at the age of 20.

"I think Scottish independence will work. Scotland has the ability to run itself and to be a successful country. I believe in this," he said. "Scotland has a lot of natural resources, North Sea oil and gas, as well as other resources like fish and whisky."

Chau has been headteacher of the Glasgow Chinese School, which has offered courses in Cantonese and Mandarin for the past 17 years.

His daughter Holly, 32, and son Callum, 28, will both be voting for Scotland to stay in the union, he said, while he thinks his wife Lin is "probably undecided".

His daughter works in IT and his son is an accountant. Both, he says, are worried about job security if Scotland leaves the UK.

"People don't like change. Most of the people I speak to are happy the way things are. They say things are going well. We have a good standard of living. Why should we vote for such a big change?"

Colin Lee, director of the Glasgow-based Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations (Scotland), said he notices more fervour for Scottish independence.

Hong Kong-born Lee, 49, said: "I would say that the Chinese community, like other ethnic communities in Scotland, would like to have a say on issues like immigration, foreign policy and racial equality legislation, which are currently reserved to Westminster."