Poll tax apology marks a new beginning 2/8

George Hawkins Ethnic Affairs


12 February 2001

NZ government apologises to Chinese

Prime Minister Helen Clark announced today that the
government has decided to make a formal apology to Chinese New Zealanders who
paid a poll tax and suffered other discrimination imposed by statute and to
their descendants.

The announcement was made at a function marking the Chinese New Year at
Parliament hosted by the Prime Minister and George Hawkins, Minister for Ethnic
Affairs, for members of the Chinese community.

Helen Clark said that Chinese people were subjected to discrimination in New
Zealand from the late nineteenth century through to the mid twentieth century.

"While the governments which passed these discriminatory laws acted in a
manner which was lawful at the time, their actions are seen by us today as
unacceptable. We believe an act of reconciliation is required to ensure that
full closure can be reached on this chapter in our nation's history.

"The poll tax, in particular, imposed considerable hardship. The Chinese
Immigrants Act of 1881 imposed a poll tax of ten pounds per Chinese person and
restricted the numbers able to enter the country to one person per ten tons of
ship cargo. These provisions were increased and consolidated in legislation over
the next few years. The poll tax rose to one hundred pounds per person and
numbers entering the country were further severely restricted. No other ethnic
group was subjected to such restrictions, or a poll tax."

Other legislative initiatives also singled out the Chinese:

  • In 1908, Chinese people had to put a thumbprint on their Certificates of
    Registration before leaving the country - no other ethnic group had to leave
  • Chinese people were deprived of their right to naturalisation in 1908 and
    this was not rescinded until 1951. No other ethnic group was deprived of this
  • A reading test in English was introduced - other immigrants had only a
    writing test in their own language.
  • Even in 1935 when entry permits were introduced after a suspension of 15
    years for reunification of family and partners of Chinese people, they were
    severely restricted.

"The poll tax was abolished in 1944. Today we recognise the considerable
hardship it imposed and that the cost of it and the impact of other
discriminatory immigration practices split families apart.

"The government apology marks the beginning of a formal process of
reconciliation with the Chinese community," Helen Clark said.

The government will be entering into discussions with the descendants of
those who paid the poll tax on an appropriate form of reconciliation.
Suggestions have come from the New Zealand Chinese Association of a government
contribution to the restoration and maintenance of the Chinese heritage,
culture, and language in New Zealand, which was severely eroded as a result of
the injustice of the poll tax and other discriminatory policies.

"This year's high school history essay competition sponsored by the
government will focus on the history of the Chinese in New Zealand to ensure
that this aspect of our history is better understood by present generations."

Helen Clark said that the Chinese community in New Zealand is a significant
contributor to New Zealand.

"The community is making a huge economic and social contribution to our
country. The many new Chinese migrants are bringing new ideas, a strong work
ethic, and valuable contacts with their countries of origin.

"Modern New Zealand has a bicultural foundation, and today is home to many
peoples. It is important that we value, honour, and respect all our communities
and see our diversity as a great strength," Helen Clark said.