The “seagull” citizens of anywhere

October 7, 2011

Immigration is always a hot issue when the economy is weak and jobs are scarce, so it should be no surprise that it has jumped to the top of the political agenda in Europe and the United States. But much of the debate today around these centuries-old themes of us vs. them and newcomer vs. old-timer is missing an essential point: in the age of the Internet, the jet airplane and the multinational company, the very concepts of immigration, citizenship and even statehood are changing.

“This is the new wave, the new trend,” Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, told me. “We had the globalization of trade, we had the globalization of capital, and now we have the globalization of talent.”

Wang recalled that three decades ago, when he first came to North America as a student, there was only one flight a day to China. Today, he said, “there are two or three dozen, if not more.”

As a result, instead of immigration being a single journey with a fixed starting point and end point, Wang said many Chinese have become what he calls “seagulls,” going back and forth between San Francisco or Vancouver, British Columbia, and Beijing or Shanghai. He is a seagull himself: I spoke to Wang on the phone from Washington; he is spending the academic year at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Massachusetts; his institute is in Beijing; and he still owns an apartment in Vancouver, where he once lived.

Airplanes and the continent-hopping professional lives they have made possible are only part of the story. The cheap, instant and often nearly constant communication made possible by the technology revolution has further fundamentally altered the experience of moving away from home.

“Because telecommunications is everywhere and is so cheap, people never really leave their communities,” Mark Podlasly, founder of the Brookmere Management Group, a Vancouver consulting firm, told me. “You can leave but still have a 24/7 connection with your home community. People are never really gone. You can be a citizen anywhere.”

I met Podlasly at the Banff Forum, an annual gathering of Canadian business people, politicians and scholars, at which he presented research on global expatriate networks as part of a panel discussion of citizenship and immigration. One of Podlasly’s conclusions was that governments and government policy need to catch up with the new reality of immigration.

That is very much the view of Professor Mark Boyle, a migration expert at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. “Citizenship law is struggling to catch up with the new realities of global work,” he told me. “It is still based on the notion of a sedentary population, rather than the nomadic population that many of us have become.”

One of the biggest shifts is in the thinking about what we used to call “brain drain.”

“Increasingly, immigrants who live elsewhere are being viewed as assets,” Boyle said. “This is a paradigm shift; this is a seismic shift. The notion of brain drain is ridiculed — instead, it is ‘brain circulation.’ The notion is that people can return as tourists, that people can be ambassadors for their home countries, that people can serve as business agents.”

“It is no longer about brain drain, or even brain gain,” Wang agreed. “It is about global brain circulation.”

One of the countries that uses its diaspora most effectively, Boyle says, is India. “India is increasingly looking to its diaspora as an asset,” Boyle said. “Many people argue that India’s technology development would not have happened without the overseas population, particularly in Silicon Valley. So the government has had to rethink its attitudes to its citizens. India has set up a whole government ministry solely to look after the expat Indians.”

Podlasly said that some countries have figured out how to use their diasporas so effectively that “they aren’t always bringing them back; they want them out there.”

An example he admires is GlobalScot, a publicly funded organization that brings together top Scottish business people working outside the country with Scottish companies hoping to export their goods or services. An outside consulting firm estimated that between 2004-06, GlobalScot added more than £28 million to the Scottish economy.

Attitudes toward these global citizens can get more complicated in the countries they live and work in, even as they retain their ties and emotional connections to their original homes. The cherished American idea of the melting pot, after all, is largely about cutting ties with the old country.

But Boyle said that in the age of globalization, a diaspora closely connected with its country of origin could be as economically valuable for its host country as it is for its native one: “Diasporas are a win-win. Silicon Valley wins, and the home country wins.”

That’s a big shift. But some countries and policy makers are predicting our concept of citizenship will soon be stretched even further — that we will go from Wang’s seagulls to thinking of countries as virtual, rather than physical, communities. In a presentation to the Canadian government in 2008, Alison Loat of the Samara Project argued, “Canadians can no longer be thought of as only those living in the territory above North America’s 49th parallel, but more accurately as a potential network of people spanning the globe.”

Boyle said that New Zealand, with its geographical isolation, small population and large number of expatriates, has taken this idea the furthest: “New Zealand is fundamentally re-imagining what it means to talk about the New Zealand nation. New Zealand is saying that it is at once a small island tucked away from the rest of the world and at the same time a globally networked nation with populations sprinkled across the globe.”

Living as we do in the age of Facebook, we shouldn’t be surprised that some countries are starting to imagine themselves more as social networks than as a physical place.


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I have never had a problem with immigration as long as it is done legally. What I have the problem with is giving illegal aliens special rights and privileges (public tax dollars) and giving them the same benefits as regular citizens when they are not.

Posted by gruven137 | Report as abusive

“You can be a citizen anywhere”

The United States has appreciated this fact for quite a while, with citizens being taxed regardless of what country they work in.

The boom in China-U.S. flights has everything to do with the amount of trade, and nothing to do with the ‘ease’ of moving around – Chinese citizens still require a strict visa to enter and stay in the U.S. – a policy that will not change given the military/spying threat they pose.

America’s ‘melting pot’ is not going away – it has always referred to second and third generation immigrants – doubtful these people will be phoning home as most second generation immigrants don’t bother learning their parent’s tongue.

And yes, it is a brain-drain, not a brain-circulation – Especially in the case of India these people come here permanently, sending home remittances – its that money, (esp from tech sector work) is the reason the Indian government setup that special ministry and isn’t eager for them to come home, unless its to visit, in which case they are tourists.

This whole article is poor. The handful of “sea-gulls” you mention have been around since before the time of ships crossing the atlantic and will always be a fraction of a percentage of the population of any country – 99%+ will be always be permanent population movements.

Oh, and government’s have been keeping up with this trend – its called VISAS – they’re pretty easy to get.

Posted by terrestri | Report as abusive

While I would not describe myself as a “seagull”, I have worked and lived in more than one country and agree that for some of us, immigration is not a fixed starting and end point.

But…the “hot issue” in American immigration is not around the highly-skilled talent flowing into and out of countries. It is about illegal immigration of largely low-skilled workers.

Posted by RNB71 | Report as abusive

Are Vagabonds chasing money around the world to be considered virtuous?

Posted by Grousefeather | Report as abusive

Seagull citizens..Sounds like a whole bunch of ivory tower intellectual gymnastics. What’s true for the 1% of the worlds population of business consultants, globe trotting college professors and other wanders, has nothing to do with the the rest the worlds population. The internet and “elightenment” are not going to extinguish 100,000 years of hardwired homosapien tribalism. Facebook social networking is a flash in the pan measured against the whole collective human experience. New Zealand is not reimaging itself, they are leveraging expatriate members of the “tribe” to the national advantage and, being a small country, it’s expatriates aren’t viewed as a threat inside the host nations they’ve emmigrated too.

Posted by Sully1270 | Report as abusive

This article makes for a good read. Its so very true. I stay in Canada & am working on a project to correct the billing addresses of millions of US customers of a US telecommunications giant. I have never set foot in the USA. I am more familiar with names of small rural USA communities than with small Canadian cities due to the daily course of my work. Similarly my brother who stays in India makes a living by fixing computers of clients in the USA over the phone. He also has never been to the USA. Now its so common to work for clients in a different continent sitting in an office in another continent. We all truly are virtual citizens.

Posted by amra_bangali | Report as abusive

The older I get the more convinced I am that the elites and chattering classes have a mental defect – not that they are stupid, but rather that they simply don’t think things through. They lack perspective.

They gather at places like the Banff conference and persuade each other of one or other new notion. And it becomes fact (in their eyes).

I am one of these ‘new’ travelers. I work in specialized software development and have lived in the UK, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India and Canada. And sure you keep in touch via Skype and iPhone, but truth is you are subjected to the reality of the here and now. The issues of where you live at any point in time.

And sure I reach out to people and organizations from my ‘home’ country, but it is not – as Freeland suggests – a reason for different view of citizenship. And sure you may inhabit a cyber world so a country can view its citizens as part of a social network. But food and housing and life is local. And if I murdered someone or committed some other local crime the fantasy social network would suddenly evaporate. I have to deal with local law.

In other words local matters more than ever in a world of change.

But this is all much ado about nothing. There are 7 billion people on earth. If there are 70 million people more move for work (and I include groups like the workers from the West coast Indian area of Mangalore who do the work in the Middle East) it is a lot.

That 1% of the world’s population. And therein lies the the problem with the chattering classes. They can’t do arithmetic (or math to the Americans). They are not numerate and therefore cannot assess the scale of their idle utterances.

They draw sweeping conclusions from a tiny portion of the human race. And see big trends that don’t really exist. In the future with communication improving there is likely to be less costly travel and more working from home. In other words the trend is staying put. The big trend is local.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

When US Citizens are free to be seagulls, then maybe we can have more tolerant attitudes. But for now, US Citizens are the property of the State. Wherever on this planet we go, we are subject to US law, not just local law. And in conflict between US and foreign law, US law always wins. We are not even free to renounce our citizenship and leave. Currently, after renouncing citizenship, the US claims the right to tax your earnings for ten years. Assets in the US must be liquidated and taxed as well, involuntarily. This is an Exit Tax.

Why such harsh laws for leaving “The Land of the Free”?? Because it is not a free country. Just having the police headquarters in your country does not make it a “free” country. If you are not free to leave, how can you claim to be a haven of freedom? You cannot. We have our own “wall” keeping people inside involuntarily. We do not have freedom of movement.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

i am regular reader of cristia. she rightly caugh the crux of immigrant psychology and relate with economy accordingly.

Posted by bashudev | Report as abusive

While the Seagulls fly the earthbound masses have been raped by globalization, If the seagull don’t develop a social and moral conscience they may find the masses gate crash the party and it wont be pleasant.

Posted by Gillyp | Report as abusive

There has always been a globalization of talent, in its various forms. Reference Xenophon’s Anabasis, for an interesting start on the globalization of military employment, apropos up to including Blackwater. Proceed through Pliny and Livy, turn leftish at Cicero, and head forward to Erasmus, pausing briefly to watch Italian Columbus demonstrate deep ocean sailing techniques for the Spanish. Sum? People get around, always have, I’m not even sure it’s on a larger scale today, than past.

BUT you are even more dead wrong on what constitutes the real cultural elite today. It’s science honey, not tacky little money changers, and it’s been that way pretty much permanently. My reading of history teaches me that there is always a Low Culture, and a High Culture at work in every society. Always. In the contemporary environment high culture takes Evolution as a given, and uses it to create a world view. Low culture America struggles with that. Least you turn that into American bashing, think about the level of abysmal ignorance that exists in villages in Yunnan, Delhi, or the east side of the Dnieper.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Whilst an individual maintains and carries an inherent sense of their national identity with them, they will inevitable migrate in that identity towards the culture(s) into which they are integrating and therefore, away from the traditional cultural references that underpin their original nationality. This can be as problematic as it is creative, leading, ultimately, to a sort of collective National identity crisis of the kind that some countries are already experiencing. It is certainly true that an import of experience is culturally enriching ( I think of artists like Talvin Singh, Kader Abdolah or Nitin Sawhney as I write) but it can also then be culturally problematic, creating a cultural dissonance in which those traditional references and histories are no longer sufficient to maintain a national identity, in the nature of which the conservative element of any nation seeks to enforce and maintain. This phenomena is here to stay.How do we respond? I would emphasise the need for accomodation and ‘the stretching of the concept of citizenship’ as mentioned in the article but question the idea that it is a win-win scenario as naive. Migration has historically always brought problems hand-in-hand with benefits. Having lived in 2 countries and visited a few others I have witnessed and lived with these issues.

Posted by neueschopfung | Report as abusive

As countries assimilate into a fairly homogenous global culture, where does that leave humans? Culture has always been (for the most part) markek by distinct, differentiated, unique attributes of each cultural segment in the world. As culture becomes homogenous then so do humans it stands to reason- entities without unique identity, tradition, symbols of meaning and importance. And what becomes of the human experience as unique culture is lost? Is losing unique culture positive? Maybe it doesn’t matter at all perhaps? Much to ponder about the impact of this homogenization of humans globally alluded to in the content of the article.

Posted by Banjes | Report as abusive