IYMI: Chinese residing in Australia reveal why they are giving up citizenship of their homeland — or why they don’t want to

Some signs of similar views among Chinese Canadians:

Xi Jinping securing his third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party was the last straw for Victor Zeng.

Mr Zeng, 26, who grew up in a remote town in Xinjiang province before moving to Melbourne to marry his husband, became an Australian permanent resident about 18 months ago.

With Mr Xi cementing his position as China’s unchallenged leader at the CCP’s National Party Congress in October, he now feels war with Taiwan and a return to a state-run collective economy is imminent.

And he worries that if he goes back to China as a Chinese citizen he may be trapped there, or one day his Australian permanent residency may be unexpectedly revoked.

“I don’t know if this is my paranoia, but I feel uncertain,” he told the ABC.

“So I’m going to discuss it with my family as soon as possible and enter the process of joining Australian citizenship.”

China’s increasing authoritarianism under Mr Xi — typified by the strict COVID-zero policy — is prompting some Chinese residents in Australia to consider taking the next step to officially become Australians.

However, China does not allow dual nationality, so it means forfeiting their Chinese citizenship.

It’s a difficult decision, with practical and emotional considerations.

‘I felt that there is another way of life’

Mr Zeng said he started feeling “conditions were deteriorating” in China from around 2016, as Beijing intensified its crackdown on the Muslim Uyghur community.

In Xinjiang, where Uyghurs are about half the population, many areas were cut off from the surrounding streets by iron gates, and authorities were checking identity cards everywhere.

“After arriving in Australia, I felt that there is another way of life that is not coerced into the grand narratives, that I can say no to the propaganda and political missions,” he said.

Mr Zeng said his biggest concern was for his family members who were still living in Xinjiang.

“If I become an Australian citizen, I don’t know if there will be more restrictions on my [visitor] visa [to China] as Xinjiang is a sensitive region,” he said.

‘We have a stronger sense of urgency than before’

In the 2021-22 financial year, 5,392 people born in China became Australian citizens, according to figures from the Department of Home Affairs.

Fan Yang, a researcher at Deakin University’s Alfred Institute, said individual choices were often connected to structural change at the societal, cultural, political, national, and even international levels.

“Xi’s third term would give people the impression that China is less likely to change,” she said.

“For those who gained significant benefit from their social status in China, it is less likely that they would give up on their Chinese citizenship.

“However, for those who tend to be more politically active, they are more likely to acquire Australian citizenship for the rights of political participation.”

While some Chinese residents in Australia share Mr Zeng’s concerns, those worries may not be enough to push them to give up their Chinese citizenship.

Aaron, who asked not to use his real name, migrated to Australia with his family in 2011.

Mr Xi’s third term and the continuation of the national COVID-zero policy were two “realistic factors” that led him to “seriously consider the choice of citizenship”.

“We have a stronger sense of urgency than before,” he said.

“China’s political and democratic environments have changed dramatically. There is the possibility of going backwards … we have put our citizenship choices as a priority now.

“When the politics is stable and the economic reforms are more stable and China connects with the rest of the world well, we think our citizenship choices don’t matter that much.”

However, because he still operates businesses and has property in China, he is reluctant to follow Mr Zeng’s lead and give up his Chinese citizenship.

He said he was also worried he would lose access to a social security fund he had been putting money into for many years.

“If we join Australian citizenship, we worry that they won’t allow us to draw money from it,” he said.

‘Identity and a choice of loyalty’

Yu Tao, senior lecturer and coordinator of Chinese studies at the University of Western Australia, said for many Chinese migrants, the decision to take Australian citizenship was tied to their “identity and a choice of loyalty”.

Becoming an Australian citizen meant “cutting ties with China” symbolically, he said.

“If China continues to close its door or gets very isolated from the rest of the world [under the COVID-zero policy], then inevitably, lots of people will have to make a choice,” he said.

“If the bilateral relationship is better, some people [will] probably feel they don’t have to make a choice.”

He said in isolation Mr Xi’s third term was unlikely to be the “single and biggest reason” for their citizenship choices.

“Xi’s third term was in a way well expected [from] when he removed the term limits of the president of PRC,” he said.

Dr Tao said the long-term sociopolitical conditions under Mr Xi’s rule, such as the COVID-zero policy and Sino-Australian relations, were likely having a more profound impact.

He said practical, economic issues were also important factors.

“I suppose if, in the long run, COVID is going to touch upon some of these practical material parts of the consideration, that will also have a profound impact on how people negotiate their citizenship,” he said.

Family ties still bind for some

Riki Lee, who came to Australia as an international student and has had permanent residency status since 2014, said taking Australian citizenship was not even a consideration for him.

He said Chinese people, influenced by the Confucian culture, were deeply affected by thoughts of homesickness and nostalgia for loved ones.

“I am an only child and my parents and family are in China,” Mr Lee said.

“If unexpected things happen, such as a war or if the bilateral relationship gets worse, a Chinese passport and a PR (an Australian permanent residency) are the most convenient way to return to China.”

‘I feel like anything could happen if I’m in China’

Dr Yang said Beijing offered incentives for young people — particularly academics — to return to China and contribute to the country, such as research allowances and discounted accommodation.

However, she said she did not believe these sweeteners played into many people’s thinking.

“Those policies are like scratching an itch outside one’s boots due to the harsh academic environment and the lack of academic funding in China,” she said.

“Academics are not well paid in China and there are unwritten rules that disadvantage female academics or LGBTQIA+ academics.”

Jessica Ching, an educational psychology graduate and holder of a Hong Kong passport, grew up in mainland China.

Before the pandemic, Ms Ching spent time in China doing psychology workshops with parents and schools and had intended to live and work in China.

She is now hesitant to continue her plan.

“I think especially in the next three to five years, I don’t see myself going back to China to start a clinic or actually going into schools to speak because there’s an imminent threat that I can’t return back to Australia,” she said.

“I feel like anything could happen if I’m in China.”

Ms Ching has a utilitarian approach to her citizenship.

She said she was holding on to her Hong Kong passport, which enables visa-free travel to many more countries than a Chinese passport, for now but she was worried that in a couple of years’ time it might lose its benefits.

“I will try to keep my Hong Kong passport as long as I can, but if it gets to a point where we have to choose, I think I will choose to be an Australian citizen,” she said.

Source: Chinese residing in Australia reveal why they are giving up citizenship of their homeland — or why they don’t want to

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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