1 February 2022

The extraordinary success of the British-Chinese community is a lesson to us all


There is a relatively small but incredibly successful ethnic group which tends to be excluded in debates on racial equality and social integration – British people of Chinese heritage. With today being Chinese New Year, what better time to reflect on their achievements – especially given the appalling bigotry faced by Chinese and other east Asian people during the pandemic.

The British-Chinese community has deep roots in this country. The first waves of immigrants arrived between 1842 (the end of the First Opium War) and the 1940s, largely through treaty ports opened as concessions to the British for the Opium Wars, such as Canton, Tianjin and Shanghai. At the last census the overall population numbered just shy of 400,000 – the second largest Chinese-heritage community in western Europe, after France.

Along with London, Chinese immigrants have historically tended to settle in port cities such as Liverpool. There are now established Chinese-origin communities in cities across the home nations, including Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Belfast. 

The statistics about British-Chinese academic and socio-economic success are extremely striking. ONS data for 2019 showed that Chinese-heritage workers have the second highest level of median hourly pay out of all ethnic groups (£15.38/hour) – comfortably higher than the figure for the white-British mainstream (£12.49/hour).  Recent analysis has also found that out of all ethnic groups living in Britain, children of Chinese origin were the least likely to live in poverty – 12%. To put this in perspective, the corresponding figure for white children is 26% and 52% for their black peers.

There is a clear link between educational and socio-economic achievement. Chinese-origin pupils lead the pack when it comes to average ‘Attainment 8’ GCSE scores in England, with an average score of 67.6 out of 90. The corresponding figures for their Indian-origin and white-British peers are 60.7 and 49.7 respectively, while for pupils of Black Caribbean heritage it’s 44.0. The disparity between the attainment of different groups exposes once more just how crude and reductive the ‘BAME’ acronym is.

What are the socio-cultural factors that help to produce such impressive outcomes? 

Based on my experience of the Chinese-origin community in my hometown of Luton, there is an exceptionally high value placed on education, including paying for supplementary tutoring (irrespective of financial barriers which have steadily reduced over time). That focus on schooling goes hand-in-hand with a cultural emphasis on hard work and determination, combined with robust parental intervention and an unshakeable belief in social mobility – there is not much tolerance for doom-and-gloom identitarian narratives and ‘anti-system’ sentiments.

That story of hard work and entrepreneurialism is borne out in studies of Chinese immigrant communities in other countries. Indeed, such have been the achievements of Chinese and other east Asian immigrants to the US that there is now a rather crude ‘model minority’ stereotype, which a spate of recent thinkpieces have been devoted to debunking.

Here in the UK there is a strong overlap between Britain’s Chinese-heritage and Indian-origin populations when it comes to family characteristics and cultural dynamics – well-ordered family units where high educational attainment is often viewed as the most reliable route towards long-term economic security and financial self-sufficiency. At the heart of this is parental assertiveness and young people’s respectfulness towards their elders – something seen as rather unfashionable, if not downright dangerous by some of the less mature elements of the modern left.

It should go without saying that uplifting stories of hard work and high achievement should be celebrated by all of us, leftwingers included. Surely progressive parties that believe that ‘diversity is our strength’ would champion such forms of ethnic-minority advancement?

But I cannot help but feel that there is a growing discomfort over cases of success within British ethnic minorities – especially when those minorities outperform the white mainstream. 

In my experience it’s not right-wingers who are uncomfortable with non-white families being independent, entrepreneurial, and self-sufficient.  Rather, it’s progressive activists and hard-left ‘anti-racists’ who increasingly treat the existence of flourishing and resilient ethnic-minority communities as an inconvenience to their pseudo-intellectual ‘white privilege’ theories and ‘systemically racist Britain’ narratives. One of the nastiest expressions of this is the tendency from some on the left to decry ethnic minorities who side with the Conservatives as some kind of traitor. 

Nonetheless, the success of British-Chinese communities clearly demonstrates that an optimistic family-orientated traditionalism rooted in hard work, study and discipline makes for a fine agent of social mobility.  In an era where racial disparities are often wrongly framed as products of discrimination, the achievements of the British-Chinese population shows us why family and culture should be at the heart of our social policy thinking. 

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is the author of the forthcoming book 'Beyond Grievance', which is available to pre-order on Amazon.