identity card politics

So today a return to a theme near and dear to my heart: satirical text messages, or as we have now stopped texting and use WeChat, satirical blog posts that are forwarded via WeChat. This time, the Op-Ed piece, “We were never Chinese citizens, just Chinese people who live on the Mainland (原来我们都不是中国国民!只是居住在大陆的中国人!) has caught my attention. Inquiring minds want to know, what’s up with that?

The analysis reads like an anthro-anecdote, one of those fieldwork moments when it all makes sense because in an everyday, completely banal and therefore overlooked object we suddenly see a social totality.

In this piece, the unnamed author and a Thai friend were looking at each other’s identity cards, and the friend–shocked, it goes without saying–exclaims, “After all this time you’re still not a Chinese citizen?”

The author replies, “Of course I am, my identity card is real.”

But the friend laughingly replies, “All you have is a PRC residence card, and not a citizen ID.”

The friend explains that in Thailand, there’s a vast difference between a citizen (国民) and a resident (居民). The author vents a bit that 5,000 years of civilization means nothing for individual Chinese and then gets to the point: Taiwanese identity cards are Republic of China citizen cards (中华民国国民身份证). The author interprets this difference to mean that the Party is telling the Chinese people, “Without us, you are nothing,”

Thus enlightened, the author examines a Hong Kong identity card, which is in fact a right-of-abode card, rather than proof of citizenship. It is a heady moment, that resonates with the experience of Party propaganda (“There is no New China without the Party (没有共产党,就没有新中国)” as well as recent events in Hong Kong. Indeed, the force of the author’s epiphany explains the preponderance of exclamation points throughout the essay.

What interests me in this story is the way that Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are being used in this story about citizenship rights in China. So I checked, and Thailand does in fact have a National ID card. Then I started thinking about what it means that Taiwan has a citizenship card and Hong Kong a right of abode card. After all, it’s clear that the Chinese residence card is an artifact of the hukou system, while more and more foreign nationals are receiving permanent residency throughout the world. And therein lies the rub.

The Chinese residence card was the product of the Maoist decision to differently integrate rural and urban Chinese into the state planned economy. The Taiwanese Citizen ID was part of the Nationalist Party’s claim to be the legitimate leader of China, including the Mainland. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong right of abode card was created when the Special Administrative Region was a Brittish colony. All three cards were produced in very different local contexts during the Cold War. And let’s be real: none of these ID cards will get you through customs.

Now, I do understand that the author’s point is that we need more citizenship rights in both the Mainland and Hong Kong. I also agree that Taiwan might be a good place to look for culturally appropriate alternatives to hukou and colonial restructuring. But point du jour Is that we’re still using these Cold War artifacts, and what’s more, were acting as if these artifacts have consistent meaning across borders.

In fact, these identity cards are reminders that we continue to live within and against Cold War instruments of state-making. Thus, the contradiction between Chinese and Taiwanese cards makes sense because they were forged in Cold War differences between Communist and Democratic governments. Similarly, with the Hong Kong Identity Card, we see how easily colonial instruments can be repatriated within a Cold War nation-state.

All this to say, the ID card debate resonates with me because I’m tired of Cold War instruments taken for naturalized fact and nationalism mistaken for meaningful difference; these cards all function within the ongoing oppressions oh global (dis)order. The various rights and abuses associated with particular ID cards within a global system is not only an instrument for ranking unequal treatment of people, but also a way of distancing ourselves from systematic abuses because “that doesn’t happen here.”

We need more democracy everywhere, and we also need to figure out how to restructure extant inequality, because our version of the national identity card might encourage us to eat our cake, while ignoring how the sugar made its way from a Philippine plantation across the ocean to our local supermarket.

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