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.