“Stop dredging up things from the past”

It is an interesting turn of events to find that the main backlash against the Campaign has been from those who consider it to be “white-bashing”, by people who suggest “white people are not there merely for the convenience of others”, and, “as a minority”, to  “expect to be offended”.  To them, we show a lack of “gratitude” to Britain after it has allowed “foreigners” to “come” here and to “share the benefits”.  We are told to consider “how China treats white people” and that we should “stop dredging up things from the past”.

All the words quoted above are taken from tweets received to the Campaign twitter account (@ww1clc).

It’s very clear that those who would argue along such lines are in a very small minority, and their views in no way reflect the reaction our Campaign receives from the public in general. That said, the notion that we are promoting in some way an anti-British narrative raises its head with sufficient frequency, albeit rarely so blatantly, as to be an issue we feel we should address head-on.

In his speech that launched the campaign, Steve Lau, Campaign Chair, observed,

A great injustice was done against the men of the Chinese Labour Corps. To all intents and purposes they were forgotten. No more so than here in the UK where not a single memorial exists to those men. With over 43,000 memorials to the First World War in the UK it is hard to think why – even how – this is so. There is undoubtedly some uncomfortable history to face, but the campaign is not about finger pointing and blame, but about recognition and commemoration.

In truth, greater injustices were undoubtedly committed against other groups. The average Tommy in the trenches was hardly treated well. This has led some to ask, “Why are the Chinese so particularly deserving?”  This is a perfectly legitimate question if asked in order to understand where the Campaign is coming from. But when employed as a rhetorical device to shift the focus away from the injustice of being forgotten, to comparing the relative deserts of the Chinese Labour Corps with others, it is, at best, disingenuous. Whether intentionally or not, those who brand us as anti-British misconstrue both the issue and the reality.

The Issue
The issue that the Campaign seeks to address is a simple one: to ensure that we remember the 96,000 Chinese volunteers who came to Britain’s assistance during the great War in the form of the Chinese Labour Corps. That the Chinese were forgotten is widely accepted, and only in very recent times, through the work of a handful of academics such as Gregory James and Xu Guoqi, has the contribution, importance and significance of the Chinese Labour Corps begun to be revealed. 

As stated from the very beginning, “the Campaign is not about finger pointing and blame”.  Indeed, the campaign is as much a non-Chinese as a Chinese issue:  those 96,000 volunteers came not to assist today’s Chinese community, but to assist Britain in the aftermath of the huge losses at the Battle of the Somme. Whereas the Chinese community recognises that it is one of the beneficiaries of the effective defence of Britain both in the First and Second World Wars, this is not the issue. Neither is how China may treat white people the issue. And we may argue as to whether or not, as a minority group, the Chinese should expect to be offended, but such issues have nothing to do with our Campaign.

Do 96,000 forgotten volunteers from the Great War deserve to be remembered? Surely our nation’s promise never to forget applies to them, as to any other.  That the volunteers were Chinese changes nothing, at least it ought not to.

There is not a single member of the Strategic Partnership Board, as an organisation or on an individual level, who is not only loyal and law abiding, but also proud to be part of the British Chinese community. We are productive, meaningful contributors to modern Britain’s wonderful diversity.  As a community, the Chinese in Britain are one of the least vocal, yet it is far from silent. The community usually speaks through actions rather than words. Chinatowns across the UK speak of the success that the Chinese have achieved through hard-work and determination. Exam league tables consistently tell of the value the community attaches to education and the aspirations for a better tomorrow for the next generation. The Chinese are the only ethnic minority that is under-represented in the British criminal justice system – this tells of the respect for authority and the belief that we all have the right to live in peace and safety.

This reality is all the more surprising given that there was no Chinese community of any size in Britain until the early 1960’s. The discovery of the contribution of these 96,000 men significantly challenges the historical narrative of the Chinese in Britain. As the story becomes better known, this shared history will surely anchor the British Chinese community within mainstream society more firmly, more resolutely, than ever before. Far from being anti-British, the Campaign will strengthen the identity of the Chinese in Britain as British Chinese.

But again, the issue is as much a non-Chinese as a Chinese one. Surely we can all be proud of those men, and those among them who died in service are no less the “Glorious Dead”, than any others, no matter the colour of their skin, their country of origin, or the creed they followed. Those who would have us determine the worth of these men based on their ethnicity rather than their contribution to this great nation in her hour of need, are surely the anti-British ones.


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