What is New Zealand’s problem with the Chinese anyway?

Proposed new immigration challenge
New proposed immigration challenge

The latest in a string of proposed anti-immigration measures aims to restrict them to regions outside of Auckland and Christchurch, thus lumping them with living restrictions usually reserved for paedophiles and repeat violent offenders (please settle at least 120km away from all Auckland school zones and stay away from Auckland’s quiet middle-class residential areas). One of these days I expect to turn on the TV and see that new immigrants will be expected to navigate an obstacle course with a mouthful of worms before they’ll even be allowed to settle in Timaru. Defining these measures as ‘regulation’ is being a little bit generous, ‘Fear Factor challenges’ is probably a slightly more accurate description, Fear Factor for Asians is probably an even more accurate one, but in reality ‘Fear Factor NZ: Yellow Peril Edition’ is probably the most accurate one. Policymakers and New Zealanders, after all, only really seemed concerned with one type of immigrant: the Chinese.

This being the latest in a seemingly never-ending saga to prevent the ‘yellow peril’ from setting foot in the country and taking all of New Zealand’s gold/women/houses/jobs. We have the ever-shameful poll tax which taxed Chinese people for being Chinese, through to bizarre fears about Chinese grocers (even back then New Zealanders were concerned with the interplay between genetics and their food!), and today we have a situation where they’re apparently the only people responsible for interest rate rises in a country where they’re often the only people not buying their houses on hire purchase. The anti-Chinese debate also seems to have the effect of turning perfectly rational New Zealanders into banjo-strumming rednecks hooked on moonshine, witness the great NZ Maori statesman Sir Apirana Ngata, who is on record as complaining in the NZ House of Representatives about the potential of Chinese grocers to lure innocent Maori women into sin.

 

Sir Apirana Ngata was very concerned about sexy Chinese grocers.
Sir Apirana Ngata was very concerned about sexy Chinese grocers.

It’s curious because although New Zealand has had a fair bit of racism to go around, no group as small as the Chinese seems to have been singled out quite so consistently. After all, the Sikhs were permitted to take over quite a few farms in the Waikato with very little complaint about how they were driving up farm purchase prices. And New Zealand’s flirtation with anti-Polynesian racism seems to have caused very little change to its Pacific immigration policy in the long-term. But with the Chinese, each decade seems to bring an exciting new problem they’re responsible for.

The lingering anti-Chinese sentiment in NZ was brought home to me a few weeks ago when a friend of a friend expressed doubts about buying Fish and Chips from a Chinese-run Fish and Chips store. Not only was this bizarre because I wasn’t aware there were still any Fish and Chip stores not run by Asian immigrants, but it was strange because this person seemed to be doubting the ability of Chinese people to fry a fish and put a whole lot of salt and batter on it (a task you’d presume would be a relatively simple for anybody, let alone somebody as industrious as a recent Chinese immigrant).

So I started wondering why anti-Chinese sentiment has been a persistent recurring theme throughout New Zealand’s history.

yellow peril

Crafar farmsSpot the difference: NZ political cartoons then and now

The most common complaint, of course, is that the Chinese don’t integrate well. To a certain degree I suppose this has been true right through New Zealand’s history (at least within the first two generations of immigrants). Many of the older Chinese would not have grown up having been exposed to much English for example (as, say, an Indian/Fijian/Pacific Island/Commonwealth immigrant might have), and in recent times they have generated demand for Chinese-only services in NZ, which has left the door open to more people with few English-language skills to migrate. And, of course China – other than it’s SAR of Hong Kong – has never been a part of the Commonwealth.

I suspect it’s more than this though. I wonder if our never-ending fear of the Chinese is linked to New Zealand’s fear of all large things in this world. New Zealand, after all, is fearful of the big United States, big nuclear reactors, big ships, big oil rigs, big mines, big business, big movie studios, the only things that are big that we’re not afraid of are big rugby players – but that’s possibly because they compete in a sport that is practiced by a small cozy club of countries.

Our minds cannot cope with the enormity of China, we cannot see any possible scenario where we are not swamped by them. Right now there are probably New Zealanders turning over in their beds at the thought of millions of pork buns flooding out the steak and cheese pie market (so stunned are we by the fact that there are millions of pork buns being made and consumed in one country at this very minute).

Destined to overtake the steak and cheese pie?
Destined to overtake the steak and cheese pie?

I’m sure there are plenty of regions out there who will be quite happy with the new proposed immigration policy. The truth is, the non-Auckland/Christchurch regions do need more people and investment, and whether that comes from the Chinese or the non-Chinese it will be welcome all the same. In fact, many of these Chinese immigrants would be welcome in any number of countries. But from a societal point of view I think we should ask ourselves why new immigrants are no longer welcome in Auckland or Christchurch. Indeed, why are they cause of Auckland’s ills despite apparently being relatively self-sufficient? And why are New Zealand’s regions apparently better equipped to cope with new Chinese immigrants than New Zealand’s two largest cities?

Or, are we just sending these immigrants to New Zealand’s regions because we still really don’t like them very much?

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