Hong Kong, Ugandan Asians and imperial-service refugees

The speed with which Britain, the US and Australia offered refugee status to Hong Kongers protesting the Beijing government contrasts sharply with the harshness and punitive nature of mandatory detention handed out to refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine and other nonwhite nations.

Emma Graham-Harrison, writing in the Guardian, highlighted an underlying reason why the UK government, in the aftermath of Brexiteer turmoil, responded with alacrity to Hong Kongers:

A large and rapid influx of people from Hong Kong is likely to be a financial boon to a Britain battered by Covid-19 and the end of the Brexit transition period.That would be a financial blow and a political embarrassment for China. Bank of America estimated in a recent report that departing Hong Kong residents could trigger capital outflows of HK$280bn (£26bn) this year alone, as people sell property and withdraw pension funds. Government figures put the “net benefit” for the UK at between £2.4bn and £2.9bn.

This idea that refugees are an entrepreneurial rocket boost, in the words of Jeevan Vasagar, is based on imperial-nostalgic stereotypes.

The hypocrisy of the Leave campaign’s premise has been – perhaps unintentionally – exposed; that refugees and migrants are a ‘burden’ on the economy. The basis of the Brexit vote was an anti-immigration economic hysteria, and stopping the alleged ‘influx’ of resource-sapping migrants and refugees was the main goal of Tory Brexiteer claims. Now, the Johnson government has opened a ‘pathway to citizenship’ for up to five million Hong Kongers – an influx of refugees if there ever was one.

Imperial-service refugees

Throughout the far-flung, now defunct, British Empire, specific ethnic communities were implanted by the British authorities for the purpose of shoring up the imperial project. Hong Kong was established as an entrepôt, and Uganda’s Asians formed a similarly-entrepreneurial community. Uganda’s Asians, insular and pro-colonial, constituted an anti-African racist constituency in the racial pyramid of the white supremacist British empire.

The tribe from which I originate – Armenians in Egypt – are a very similar pro-colonial minority, internalising the imperial outlook of their British masters. Adopting a hostile mindset against the majority nation – Arab and Muslim Egyptians in this case – imperial-service communities make for good media copy when they undergo political turmoil in their host country.

Ugandan Asians, while victims of racism, were also perpetrators of the colonial mindset. Targeted by the administration of General Idi Amin, the Asian community were expelled en masse, and took up refuge in Britain. Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath advocated the cause of Uganda’s Asians in the 1970s. Never matter that Amin had been a long-term British asset, and became demonised in the corporate media after he turned against his former paymasters.

Heath responded to the anti-immigration sentiments of his fellow Conservatives by appealing to the moral grounds of the Ugandan Asian refugee case. Gone was the overblown rhetoric about the ‘ economic burden’ of refugees; the mythical ‘flood’ of migrants was nowhere to be seen. 25 000 Ugandan Asian refugees were accepted by Britain, and they and their descendants went on to have successful lives.

Hong Kongers and Australian anti-Asian racism

The Australian government has been very receptive to calls for providing a safe haven for Hong Kong residents. Coverage of the Hong Kong protests have been very sympathetic, routinely referring to protesters as ‘pro-democracy.’ Note that the sustained, large and politically motivated protests by the poor in Haiti are described as ‘anti-government‘, thus subtly undermining their political legitimacy.

Much was made of a proposed extradition law between China and Hong Kong which, its critics claimed, would have allowed Beijing to crack down on politically-dissident Hong Kongers. However, let’s have some truth in advertising before we proceed. The extradition law was proposed in the wake of a gruesome crime by a Hong Kong national. Having murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan, the man returned to Hong Kong – Taiwan does not have an extradition treaty with HK.

The proposed law specifically defined extraditable crimes, and ruled out political opposition as a basis for extradition. The bill also provided the HK Chief Executive with the power to review and refuse extradition requests. However, Hong Kongers, playing up to the Sinophobic anxieties of the western powers, claimed that the proposed extradition treaty was political in nature. For more detail about the extradition bill, you may read here.

The Hong Kongers made their political affiliations very clear when they waved the Union Jack, and demanded that former US President Donald Trump intervene militarily to ‘save’ Hong Kong. In fact, the main advocates of the Hong Kong protests have deliberately allied themselves with far-right and racist Americans politicians, the latter sworn enemies of Black Lives Matter and anti-racism. When your allies are fanatical regime-change neoconservatives, you are exposing to the world exactly what kind of politics you stand for.

When your pathway to self-determination is paved by the National Endowment for Democracy, and your demands specifically reject solidarity with other oppressed and marginalised ethnic communities, then it is time to question the direction of that pathway.

The Australian government must take this opportunity to re-examine its refugee policy, and stop refugee demonisation. Otherwise we will only indulge in a self-congratulatory exercise, cynically portraying sanctuary for imperial-service refugees in a humanitarian disguise.

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