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Chinese champion fights

By Cecily Liu | China Daily | Updated: 2013-04-30 07:29

Bullied as a child in Northern Ireland, Christine Lee went on to build a business helping others, Cecily Liu reports

Christine Lee has spent her life championing justice, from fighting bullying in a Northern Ireland boarding school to impacting a change in the UK's immigration law. With a passion to help her fellow Chinese assert their rights in the UK, she founded her law firm Christine Lee & Co in London in 1990, initially focusing on immigration cases. In recent years the firm has expanded to Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Beijing, playing an important role helping Chinese entrepreneurs investing in the UK.

Chinese champion fights
Lee says her love for her country keeps her motivated. "I work with Chinese clients because I love them, and I want to help the trade and investment link between the UK and China grow," she says.

As legal adviser to the Chinese embassy in London, and the only Chinese member in British Prime Minister David Cameron's 2010 business delegation to China, Lee is often seen as a privileged figure. But such privilege originates from a tough childhood.

Originally from Hong Kong, Lee's family migrated to Northern Ireland in the 1970s, when she was 12 years old. Lee studied at a reputable boarding school in Belfast where she was the only Chinese in a class with 66 Irish girls.

"It was very difficult for a young girl to leave her home and her beloved grandparents and come to live in a cold place," Lee recalls. The coldness is not only a reference to Belfast's climate, but also the way her classmates bullied her.

"My English was poor and I couldn't really communicate with the boarders, which put me in a weaker position. There was not so much physical bullying, but a lot of verbal bullying," she says.

Lee had a habit of putting seven teaspoons of sugar into her coffee to balance the bitterness. One day, when she asked an Irish girl to help her with the sugar, the girl put seven teaspoons of salt into her coffee.

Lee still recalls the saltiness of the coffee. "The girls who were watching thought I would not drink it, but I told myself to drink the entire cup, and show them that I am not weak," she says.

From that day, Lee no longer hid from others, but gathered together other bullied students to practice karate so they could protect themselves.

It is the unfairness and injustice that Lee observed in her childhood that led her to pursue a career in law. The early years of her legal career had a focus on immigration cases, predominately helping migrants from Hong Kong.

In 2005, a newly proposed immigration bill came to Lee's attention. Known as the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act, the bill proposed three changes that Lee believed would be detrimental to the Chinese catering trade.

It proposed that, firstly, foreign workers who had worked in the UK on work permits for four years would not receive permanent resident status. Secondly, employers of illegal workers would be sent to jail for two years. Thirdly, foreign nationals whose applications for leave to remain in the UK were rejected would not have the right to appeal.

When Lee found out about the proposal in July 2005, it had already reached the second stage of the decision making process in the House of Commons. If it passed the third stage, in the House of Lords, it would become official.

Lee sought help from Lord Chan of Oxton, the only lord of Chinese descent in the UK at the time.

"He told me: 'Christine, if you want to lobby, there is no point for you to just lobby London. You have to lobby the whole of England. You have to travel the whole country and get every single member of the Chinese community to support you. Otherwise it's not going to have an effect.'"

Lee put the advice into action immediately. "I contacted every single Chinese leader I could find, and they contacted the restaurant owners and workers in their own communities to hear what I had to say in the seminars."

Lee took four lawyers to each seminar who transcribed the concerns of the Chinese restaurant owners and workers into letters addressing their local members of parliament. Within three months the group had gathered about 10,000 letters, which Lee gave to Catherine Ashton, who was heading the debates on the bill in the House of Lords.

"She told me, 'I've never heard a voice from afar before and we didn't' even know there are that many Chinese people living in this country,'" Lee recalls.

Meanwhile, MPs across the country received letters from their constituents. "They were shocked and dismayed because they didn't know we have a voice and that we had so many grievances to the bill," she says.

The realization led to the bill's amendment when it became official in 2006. Employees who have worked in the UK for four years on work permits were granted permanent residence, employers of illegal workers would only be fined money, and those who are refused leave to remain in the UK by the UK Border Agency have the right to appeal.

In 2008, Christine Lee & Co opened an office in Guangzhou, and in 2011 launched another in Beijing. The company has 36 employees in China.

Through the firm's consultancy subsidiary, China UK Link, Lee's team has helped many Chinese entrepreneurs seek investment opportunities in the UK, providing services ranging from helping an investor obtain a visa to study in the UK, to helping subsidiaries of Chinese companies dealing with legal issues.

Lee has observed that many Chinese companies are now looking to list on the London Stock Exchange. "We discuss with the client what they want to achieve from the IPO, and then we help to match them with suitable financial advisors in London," she says.

Lee's team also advises Chinese investing in the UK for their children's education and work experience.

Currently, Chinese graduates are at a disadvantage compared to British or other European graduates when looking for jobs in the UK, because employers need to sponsor their work permits. But if their parents have at least 1 million pounds ($1.5 million) invested in the UK under their name, they will then get an investor visa and have the right to work.

"Many Chinese parents want their children to gain some experience of working in the UK after graduating from British universities. So we help these investors choose suitable investments," Lee says.

"The UK is very open to Chinese investment. Different from when I first came, it now has a large Chinese community, so Chinese investors and students coming in recent years feel very much at home."

Lee founded the charity BC Project in 2006, which campaigns to encourage members of the British Chinese community to vote in general elections. The aim is to push politicians to pay greater attention to the Chinese community's needs.

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