There were 433,150 Chinese people (0.7 per cent of the total UK population) recorded in the 2011 Census. According to official data, Chinese now make up the largest group of immigrants from any country into the UK. However, there are an increasing number of undocumented Chinese immigrants, who face exploitation, poor living conditions and invisibility. In London, for instance, some estimates suggest that the Chinese population is twice as large as official figures would suggest due to the large undocumented population residing there.
There are three main linguistic groups. The largest is Cantonese, followed by Hakka and Mandarin. Many versions of Cantonese are spoken. Hokien, Teow Cheow and Hainanese are also spoken. The community comes from Hong Kong, mainland China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. However, the demographics of the Chinese population is evolving as increasing numbers now originate from mainland China.
The Chinese community is widely dispersed throughout the UK, but the main concentration, around half, is in London. There are established Chinatowns in large cities, such as London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle upon Tyne. There are significant Chinese communities in other major cities and towns, such as Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff, Bristol, Sheffield, Cambridge and Milton Keynes. There are also Chinese families living in suburban areas and small towns around the UK.
Undocumented Chinese immigrants work mostly in food processing, catering, agriculture and construction. Some are rejected asylum seekers.
Chinese seamen were employed on British ships from the 1800s onwards. There were settled Chinese communities in London and Liverpool from the early nineteenth century. The demand for seamen in the Second World War increased the Chinese population, but most were subsequently repatriated. The first permanent large-scale settlement of Chinese occurred in the 1950s, when Britain’s economic boom and labour shortages led to a relaxation of immigration laws to encourage immigrants from overseas British and Commonwealth countries.
Poor rural Chinese migrants came from Hong Kong’s New Territories and set up restaurants. Educated wealthy Chinese came from Malaysia and Singapore to take up professional jobs and set up businesses. In the 1970s Chinese boat people from Vietnam were granted asylum. In the 1990s a second wave of immigrants from Hong Kong came to Britain following the British handover of Hong Kong to China. These migrants were generally well educated, and many went into business or the professions. They were followed by immigrants from mainland China, many of whom took up low-paid, exploitative jobs through Chinese networks. Today, extensive family, business, trade and educational links mean that there are migrant and expatriate Chinese as well as their descendants living across the UK and participating in many walks of life. Higher education is a key component of this exchange between countries with UK universities hosting 120,000 students from China in 2019.
The exploitation experienced by undocumented Chinese immigrants was tragically highlighted when 23 Chinese cockle pickers were cut off and drowned by the tide in Morecambe Bay in 2004. The Chinese gangmaster of this incident was convicted of manslaughter and jailed, but the English buyers of the cockles were acquitted.
Undocumented Chinese migrants often live in cramped substandard housing, in debt to and under the control of the ‘snakeheads’ whom they have paid to bring them to Britain. Because they are in the UK without documentation and many do not speak English, they are afraid or unable to seek help from the wider community. Although the Gangmaster Licensing Act came into effect in 2006 in the wake of the Morecambe Bay tragedy, to try and prevent such an event happening again, exploitative practices continue.
Indeed, a further tragic case in 2019 highlighted the vulnerability of undocumented Chinese, this time while in transit. A refrigerated lorry trailer in Essex was found to contain the bodies of 39 Chinese nationals, recently arrived in the UK from Zeebrugge in Belgium. Debt bondage appears to be a crucial underlying reason in this other and instances, with victims being trafficked to the UK and ending up in modern-day slavery. In 2018, 451 Chinese were identified as victims of slavery, representing the fourth most common country of origin; of course, this figure is probably just a fraction of the total number, with many cases going unreported.
At the same time, the Chinese community’s composition is changing. The number of undocumented Chinese immigrants is decreasing, due to stricter controls, including on employers, by the UK authorities as well as greater economic opportunities at home. A community spokesperson estimates that there may be 100,000 undocumented Chinese in the UK, but that new undocumented arrivals are about a tenth of what they were in 2004. Meanwhile, the number of mainland Chinese coming to the UK to study at university – at 120,000 in 2019 – is more than double what it was a decade ago, and many stay on to seek work in the UK. The issues confronting the community are shifting as well. There are worries that soaring rents will displace London’s Chinatown from its increasingly desirable central location. In July 2018, there were street protests in Chinatown against immigration officers who were seen to be deliberately targeting the area in search of undocumented restaurant workers.
A key and growing issue for the UK’s Chinese community is hate crime. According to media reports based on police records, the number of hate incidents against Chinese in the first three months of 2020 was triple that of the same period the year before. Anti-Chinese political rhetoric by US President Donald Trump is thought to be a contributing factor, both with regard to trade and also the Covid-19 pandemic which he and other high-profile figures have blamed on China. This has led to fears that racism against British Chinese is going unaddressed. A contributing factor is the lack of political representation. The very first British Chinese MP to be elected to parliament is Alan Mak, and he only took his seat for the Conservatives in 2015.
Updated September 2022
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