On the Implications of Citizenship
Who wants to be a citizen? That’s an important question because most people are never asked. They’re born into the role and it could well mean very little to them in their daily lives. Sure, many people apply for citizenship, even hold dual citizenship and are expected to walk away from something to prove their complete or provisional loyalty. But most of us simply think of citizenship as an ideal and the citizen as someone lodged between a role model and a relic, depending on the point of view. Still, we keep talking about responsibility to this country or that, and the dubious ‘fact’ that rights bring with them duties. These are traces of citizenship buried within our perceptions of the world. But do we want them, and – even more importantly – do we need them?
My answer is no.
In a previous post I made clear my position on citizenship. With its links to civility, in its attachment to the status quo at some level or another, the very notion is a curb on dissent. You could counter that the idea of ‘social citizenship’ actively encourages change with its focus on equal rights and opportunities. But even if that focus leads to activism, it is a form of activism that carries with it an implicit allegiance to equality as a new status quo, another way of dressing up the body politic.
Throughout its history the seemingly natural concept of the ‘citizen’ has always shifted attention away from the implications of citizenship. The English word derives from the Latin ‘civitas’, which denotes place of residence and political affiliation together. A citizen was originally a product of a city-state – Rome principally, but also the Greek city states before it. The city created the citizen, gave him rights above others and responsibilities in government. In the shift to democracy and other modern forms of governance the word has never lost that dual designation of person-place.
So can we ever be citizens of the world, as some people like to declare themselves? Yes, of course, but there will always be a tension between the place of origin and the place of domicile. Those who hold citizenship in one country and live in another generally lack rights of some kind. I’ve met Filipinos who have lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years but have no legal right to reside here longer than the term of their current labour contract.
And then there’s the high-level bureaucrat in the local government who was recently outed as holding a foreign passport. Locals ask: who is this interloper? His name is Gregory So, and he’s lived here most of his life. He, too, is a local. Many thousands of Hong Kongers sought foreign citizenship as the handover to China loomed in 1997, and relatively few have relinquished it. Can a bureaucrat with a passport from one country live, work and thrive in another, be loyal to that country – his home – as much as the execution of his duties entail?
Of course he can, if you strip out the presumption that location makes the person, if you toss away the idea of citizenship and ask for something else. Try ‘passport holder’, because it’s impossible to travel between countries without that little booklet. But ‘citizen’? No, it presumes too much about a person that might not be true. And it alludes to stability when a situation might be fluid. Some Hong Kongers still hold foreign passports because they’re wary of mainland Chinese control. Their passports offer a way out if the political situation deteriorates.
So I ask once more, who wants to be a citizen? No polity is eternal, no country is inherently good. Perhaps we should consider an alternative. Imagine, for a moment, life as a resident alien, and with it the freedom to accept and encourage ideas other than those predominating in your country. That’s a way to remain light-footed at home, unburdened by the dead weight of place.