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Citizenship in Motion (Review)

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Elaine Lynne-Ee Ho. 2019.
Citizens in Motion: Emigration, Immigration, and Re-migration Across China's Borders
Stanford: Stanford University Press
ISBN 9781503606661

Right questions
This book asks all the right questions of the modern Chinese global movement and presents a range of interesting case studies or examples to illustrate the subject. But in the end rather than just illuminate or push the reader into a better understanding of the theme, this work perhaps can be credited with what in some ways is much more valuable. This would be in its revealing the limits of terminology and concepts long employed – Chinese, diaspora, citizenship, migration – and the need for a long overdue rethink of the assumptions or at least most taken for granted notions behind these concepts.

China is the focus here but it is never clearly defined why it is – the historical origins of many of the case examples, their self-identity, the source of better jobs for many, the citizenship that is not dual? All these and more are given a role but they all revolve around the unexamined idea of China and Chineseness. Instead we are told that citizenship is the key. This is certainly a legal privilege bestowed or withheld or made conditional by the state of the People’s Republic of China. But is this legal power really the key to the lives of those moving back and forth across borders – another legal fiction?

Before seeing where the limits of this analysis may take us a few weaknesses should also be pointed out. An early disappointment is the trite claim to be the first to discover that a multiplicity of locations is a thing – such claims have of course been made regularly for many decades. Another weakness is in its defining the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Chinese disaporas. The obvious historical parallels here are lost when the ‘old diaspora’ is merely seen as different people from the new they live beside today and thus failing to perceive how very similar they where when the old was new. Thus despite acknowledging the importance of an ‘historically informed perspective’ such a perspective is largely absent from this work.

What this work does do is to push the very concepts ‘Chinese’ and ‘diaspora’ to their limits while failing to seize the opportunity this provides to test their value via the case examples being discussed. Thus individuals, Singaporean identity, middle class and professional mobility, choice of citizenship status, income and family are all elements identified in the analyses but not explained by the assumptions behind the concepts ‘Chinese’ and ‘diaspora’. Rather the many elements contained in the case examples and anecdotal accounts seem to be randomly grouped together to provide fodder for these assumptions. But what if the only thing linking these disparate groups and examples is a perception of ‘Chineseness’ imposed by non-Chinese (aka white, aka Europeans) combined with the vagaries of the citizenship law of the People’s Republic of China?

The study contains many interesting field observations that are each in turn dealt with such broad conceptual strokes that their impact is largely negated. Thus the wonderful images of returnees from Southeast Asia living in China for decades are reduced to the expectation to assimilate while in fact maintaining some features from their past. Is there really anything new here?

There is also a surprising lack of statistics to provide context. Thus with the Canadian Chinese reported to be flitting back and forth to China. What percentage of all Chinese Canadians do they in fact represent? Is it only 5 per cent or if it were even as high as 25 per cent what would this imply? Do these people represent an ‘ethnicity’ as the work implies or do they represent a class – a category too rarely mentioned – or even in the final analysis merely a fashion? Similarly the choice to maintain permanent residency over losing China citizenship is one Taiwanese do not have to make. Is there a difference in their patterns and attitudes? If not what does this imply for the emphasis assumed for citizenship?

The ‘norms and practises’ of citizenship are the focus for the discussion of Chinese people moving back and forth between China and Canada at different points in their lives or for their children’s educational opportunities. But is this the real take here? This tiny minority of the Chinese population seem part of the global middle class moving where it is convenient to them. Citizenship is merely a restriction or barrier to be used or got around. What are they really doing? Making an income and seeking a purpose in life? Being cosmopolitan? What are we missing in this form of analysis?

The Singaporean case example is another instance of the failure of ‘Chineseness’ to contain all it is assumed to be. Here the very idea of ‘co-ethnicity’ dissolves as ‘Chinese’ divide themselves into locals and new arrivals, English and Mandarin speakers. Yet all we get by way of conclusion is that all this is difficult for the Singaporean ‘state’. Isn’t something more happening here?

A variety of Singaporean and Taiwanese examples are also provided to show their ‘alterity’ with ‘Mainland Chinese’. Yet the simple class basis of all this is ignored while it is cast entirely in ‘national’ terms. That wealthy middle class people act as snobs and cling to anything that makes them feel superior to others is hardly in need of ‘co-ethnicity’ as an explanation. In fact much would seem to be lost by the use of it. We are also presented with Burmese Chinese speaking Mandarin and looked down on, as are Africans living in China. What does this tell us? Surely that anything can be used to make a person feel an ‘us versus them’ psychology. What value is the ‘Chinese diaspora’ in all this?

Humans in motion
The study drops the occasional tantalizing hint that once Chinese are begun to be seen as just a human as Europeans all the old concepts must change. That ‘prioritizing ethnicity’ may not be unique to Chinese and that there is something ‘beyond the Chinese context’ provides some hope here. That a ‘social transformation’ is occurring is obvious perhaps, but isn’t something more happening here also? More certainly than mere ‘migration’ ‘remigration’ and the border guard obsessions that are the basis of these old ideas.

China is a population of well over 1 billion people. A small percentage of this, perhaps 35 million people or less than 3 per cent claim to be part of a so-called Chinese diaspora (the Irish diaspora is larger). What is happening in the many examples provided here – and the many more that could have been provided from across more continents? Perhaps these should be looked at beyond a Euro-centric ‘Chinese diaspora’ in a world where people from the China end of the Asian continent are catching up with those from the small European peninsula end of that same continent. New concepts and a new perspective are needed to begin to understand all this, with this work helping by revealing to us how inadequate the old concepts are.

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