On citizenship

Roughly a year after acquiring my Irish passport, I read this article in the Financial Times. The author describes his frustration with the recent trend for Brexit-fearing British citizens to claim Irish citizenship, a frustration borne primarily of these individuals’ lackadaisical attitude to the identity implications of their new-found Irishness. Ironically, one could hazard that it was the same identitarian politics that powered Brexit in the first place. The article had me thinking seriously about citizenship and its day-to-day implications.

Citizenship is a murky issue. I ought to know as a walking advertisement for the Liberal Metropolitan Elite™ – a true citizen of nowhere.

My own Irish passport application was accepted on the basis of my father’s birth in [Northern] Ireland. I figured that applying from Hong Kong, where I was born and hold Permanent Residency, would hasten the process. Within three weeks, with minimal effort on my part, I had my shiny new passport for every eventuality (without the need to renounce my British one).

I visited both Northern and Southern Ireland in the summer of 2018; it was my first visit in over a decade. From my brief experience, it was clear that the wounds from a protracted conflict over national identity had not entirely healed. The Peace Wall in Belfast is a striking visual depiction of the division between Protestant Loyalist and Catholic Republican communities that remains in earnest to this day. I was lucky enough to have somebody who experienced the troubles first hand as my driver and guide – my dad! 

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Visiting the Belfast Peace Wall

My dad’s family left Ireland in his early teens for the sunnier climes of Glasgow. Despite being on the “right” side of the conflict from his British contemporaries’ perspective, he found himself bullied for being of the same ilk as the IRA terrorists behind recent atrocities. He remained in Glasgow until he left for what was initially to be a year’s posting in Hong Kong. In Glasgow, he met my mother (a native Glaswegian) and they graduated from medical school. Today, my paternal grandparents live an hour’s drive outside of Glasgow but retain a strong Northern Irish identity. 

The Hong Kong Issue

My parents are now pushing 30 years in Hong Kong. I was born in Hong Kong. I don’t speak Cantonese. I cannot apply for a Hong Kong passport without giving up my other passports, and given the unclear future of Hong Kong as a nation or ‘Special Administrative Region’, it would be imprudent to do so. 

What passport one possesses determines many of the choices available to them. Where they can work, where they can travel, their right to consular protection… the list goes on. Growing up in a former British colony (I was born in 1995, just under two years before the 1997 handover), I am lucky to have a ‘real’ British passport. As the handover deadline drew nearer and accompanying considerations became more urgent, the Hong Kong people were offered the option of acquiring a British National Overseas (BNO) passport.

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Beach baby in Hong Kong (SEE, MY LIPS ARE REAL)

The ongoing protests in Hong Kong have brought issues of citizenship to the fore. I would hazard a guess that the identity dissonance between Hong Kongers’ and their Mainland Chinese counterparts is a significant contributor to the issue. Much like the Taiwanese, a large proportion of Hong Kong people resist the ‘Chinese’ label and wish to distinguish themselves. From viral posts on the perceived uncouth behaviour of mainland tourists to controversies over maternity beds, this tension has existed for as long as I can remember. As the 2047 full handover date draws nearer and Beijing becomes increasingly assertive in its grip on the territory, one could hazard that the battle for hearts and minds is already lost.

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The infamous 2012 ‘anti-locust’ advertisement

Many – if not most – Hong Kong protestors lack other options in terms of citizenship. Unlike Portugal, which offered its Macanese ‘subjects’ Portuguese citizenship during the decolonisation process, Britain offered only the British National Overseas (BNO) passport. These have proven a watered-down excuse of an offering, British only nominally. Those holding them do not hold right of abode in either the United Kingdom or Hong Kong, and their status for consular protection is dubious. Such is its futility that it has been nicknamed the “Britain says NO” passport. With this in mind, it is hard for me to take any British hot-takes on the Hong Kong situation seriously, for our government failed to give the people what they were arguably owed. For those in Hong Kong who wish to emigrate, options are few – and understandably, emigration is an increasingly attractive prospect. 

It’s not only a matter of identity or freedom or any such important but ‘soft’ topics – citizenship impacts the economy, too. My work today involves optimising the employment strategies of British startups. It is strikingly difficult to convince any of these companies to consider visa sponsorship when making even the most critical of hires. This isn’t wholly the fault of the companies in question – the complexity of the government-mandated Visa system defies belief. When making urgent hires – all hires are urgent in the startup world – this option is less than desirable. As bad as it currently is, I shudder to imagine how it might be should Brexit continue on its current trajectory (see my article on this); at least today EU hires are relatively straightforward. People power the economy, and if we lack the necessary pool of skills within Britain (as is certainly the case within tech), we are putting ourselves at an enormous economic disadvantage. 

The Non-Conclusion

In this age of hyper-connectedness, where you can work for a company without ever stepping foot in its offices, the arbitrariness of the system is more striking than ever. That I, born and bred in Hong Kong, could be considered to have more right to abode in the UK than a member of the Windrush generation is, to me, utterly absurd. Yet we hold dear these notions of citizenship, inextricably tie them to our identity, and question them little in day-to-day life. Hence this thought piece. Hopefully, Boris will give it a read. 

– Alice 

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