Some visiting Australian friends have said that they are finding New Zealand politics as interesting as their own, although I don’t think this was meant as a compliment.
Those of us in New Zealand had a few days of House of Cards-lite intrigue, in that it was stirred up by a conservative whip, in an attempt to take down his party leader. Except it was so much more condensed than the machinations of Francis Urquhart, and, if you were Chinese, Indian or Filipino, in the words of Taika Waititi, it was ‘racist AF’.
Two of my Tweets garnered hundreds of likes each, which generally doesn’t happen to me, but I am taking that as reinforcing something I truly believe: that most New Zealanders aren’t racist, and that we despise injustices and treating someone differently because of their ethnicity.
Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross and opposition leader Simon Bridges’ phone call, where the former stated that two Chinese MPs were worth more than two Indian ones, drew plenty of thoughts from both communities, where we felt we were treated as numbers, or a political funding source, with none of us actually getting into a National Cabinet (or the Shadow Cabinet) since Pansy Wong was ousted last decade—making you feel that had other Cabinet ministers been held to the same standard, they would have been gone as well. Here was my first Tweet on the subject:
In a bid to win National Party clients, I’m changing my business slogan to ‘Worth more than my mate Krishna.’
— Jack Yan 甄爵恩 (@jackyan) October 17, 2018
While Bridges was quick to apologize to Maureen Pugh MP, whom he insulted in the leaked phone call:
On discussing racial worth, I note that Pugh gets an apology, Chinese and Indian NZers don’t.
— Jack Yan 甄爵恩 (@jackyan) October 17, 2018
There’s the inevitable look back through the history of Chinese New Zealanders, who have largely been humiliated since the gold-mining days by earlier generations, and the Poll Tax, for which an apology came decades after during the previous Labour government.
And the scandal also inspired Tze Ming Mok to write an excellent op-ed for The New Zealand Herald, which I highly recommend here. It’s one of the most intelligent ones on the subject.
She’s absolutely right: those of us with few connections to the People’s Republic of China don’t like being grouped in among them, or treated as though we’re part of the Chinese Communist Party apparatus.
Her research showed that roughly half of Chinese New Zealanders were born on the mainland, and that the group itself is incredibly diverse. My father’s family fled in 1949 and I was raised in a fairly staunch anti-communist household, images of Sun Yat Sen and the ROC flag emblazoned on my paternal grandfather’s drinking glasses. My mother, despite being born in Hong Kong, grew up behind the Bamboo Curtain and survived the famine, and didn’t have an awful lot of positive things to say about her experiences there, eventually making her way out to her birthplace during her tertiary studies.
Tze Ming writes:
This chilling effect is harming Chinese people in New Zealand. Many people cannot differentiate Chinese people from the actions of the CCP (I mean hey, many people can’t tell a Chinese from a Korean), but this is made worse when hardly any authorities on the topic will address the issue openly. Concerns can only erupt as xenophobia against the Chinese and “Asian” population …
CCP-linked politicians parroting Xi Jinping and promoting Beijing’s Belt & Road priorities don’t speak for at least half of us.
‘At least’ is right. My father was born in the mainland where 反共 was a catch-cry in his young adult life. I’m willing to bet there’s an entire, older Chinese-born generation that thinks the same.
It’s endlessly irritating and insulting that both Labour and National have lazily assigned Chinese communities as the fiefdoms of politicians openly backed by the Chinese government.
That’s true, too. In 2014 I was approached by the National Party asking how best to target the Chinese community. My response was to treat us the same as any other New Zealanders. I’m not sure whether the advice was taken on board, as within months I was invited to a Chinese restaurant for a $100-a-head dinner to be in the presence of the Rt Hon John Key, a fund-raiser that was aimed at ethnic Chinese people resident here. It certainly didn’t feel that I was being treated like my white or brown neighbours.
The other point Tze Ming touches on, and one which I have written about myself, is the use of the term Asian in New Zealand.
Let me sum it up from my time here, beginning in 1976, and how I saw the terms being used by others:
1970s: ‘Chinese’ meant those people running the groceries and takeaways. Hard working. Good at maths. Not good at politics or being noticed, and Petone borough mayor George Gee was just an anomaly.
1990s: ‘Asian’ became a point of negativity, fuelled by Winston ‘Two Wongs don’t make a white’ Peters. He basically meant Chinese. It’s not a term we claimed at the time, and while some have since tried to reclaim it for themselves to represent the oriental communities (and some, like super-lawyer Mai Chen, have claimed it and rightly extended it to all of Asia), it’s used when non-Chinese people whine about us. It’s why ‘My best friend is Asian’ is racist in more than one way.
2010s: ‘Chinese’ means not just the United Front and the Confucius Institute (which has little to do with Confucius, incidentally), but that all Chinese New Zealanders are part of a diaspora with ties to the PRC. And we’re moneyed, apparently, so much that we’ve been accused of buying up properties based on a list of ‘Chinese-sounding names’ by Labour in a xenophobic mood. I’ve been asked plenty of times this decade whether I have contacts in Beijing or Shanghai. If you’re born in Hong Kong before July 1, 1997, you were British (well, in a post-Windrush apartheid sense anyway), and unlikely to have any connections behind the Bamboo Curtain, but you’ve already been singled out by race.
Now, I don’t want to put a dampener on any Chinese New Zealander who does have ties back to the mainland and the CCP. We share a history and a heritage, and since I wasn’t the one who had any experience of the hardships my parents and grandparents suffered, I don’t have any deep-seated hatred festering away. My father visited the old country in 2003 and put all that behind him, too. A republic is better than the imperial families that had been in charge before, and if I’ve any historical power to dislike, I’d be better off focusing on them. So in some respects, there is “unity” insofar as I’ll stick up for someone of my own race if they’re the subject of a racist attack. I’ll write about Chinese people and businesses without the derision that others do (e.g. here’s an article on the MG GS SUV that doesn’t go down the Yellow Peril route). But we’re not automatons doing Beijing’s bidding.
I’ll lazily take Tze Ming’s conclusion in the Herald:
We deserve better than to be trapped between knee-jerk racists and Xi Jinping Thought. Abandoning us to this fate is racism too.
I haven’t even begun to address the blatant sexual harassment that has since emerged as a result of the scandal, but others are far better placed to speak on that.