Day 12: Between the language and the story

By Deena Dajani · 15 June 2013
Today marked the beginning of the conference on 'Citizenship in Orientalised Societies' at Sun Yat-Sen University. Chinese and international scholars looked at citizenship in its cultural, social and political dimensions, mainly focusing on China.
The conference was held in the majestic Swasey Hall. On entering the space, one immediately feels that the room breathes history. The Hall's history is a varied one. It was donated by Ambrose Swasey of the Warner & Swasey Company, a manufacturer of machine tools and astronomy instruments in Cleveland, U.S. when the campus was still part of Lingnan University, a school founded by American missionaries. Later in the 1920s, the hall hosted one of Sun Yat-Sen's important founding lectures of the Republic of China. Now it is the site of major academic conferences and speeches.
In this evocative site, today’s conference immersed us in hot political debates that unveiled the centrality of the rural-urban and immigrant-resident divides in China. We were pleasantly surprised by the fact that some scholars talked about sensitive issues such as Tibet, rights of urban migrants, and new social movements in big cities. But we also felt that some topics were avoided or downplayed.
Much was said about Chinese 'cultural citizenship', the role of the internet for contemporary governance, the limits of national social citizenship and forms of provincial welfare. On the other hand, political citizenship remained hardly mentioned, even though all that was discussed appeared clearly 'political' in nature. In spite of these unspoken limitations, many scholars were clearly very passionate about the future of citizenship in this country and their enthusiasm persuaded us of the fact that we were witnessing an important moment of change.
This moment of academic creativity was experienced differently by our group members, but the way in which the academic space opened up windows on other worlds did not leave any of us indifferent. Edward Said once wrote that, "Exile is strangely compelling to think about and terrible to experience..." Today at the university we performed our roles as academics, with conference badges and all the right words. In a brief break in the routine, a girl spoke about her family. A family of rural Chinese migrants displaced in a city, with unrecognized academic degrees and no legal right to work. It is a familiar story to any child of migrants from places that have been devalued in the global economy, people who are marked by devalued skills, defamed faiths, languages, skin. We spoke of how strange it feels to sit in these hallowed halls and listen to people rationally debate and theorize about displacement when to some, it feels personal, like an old wound, like a hidden album of family photos, translated into saleable narrative and high brow discourse. There are often two conversations being staged in academic space. The official story of PowerPoint, the quotes of great men of great canons, the language of the intellectual elite and the other story, the personal story of family, friends, lives lived and lost across borders. It is in this space of translation, between theory and body that one can see the violence of academic bureaucracy and business, but also its motivations, which somehow trigger precious moments of solidarity.  
Parallel to the conference on 'citizenship in orientalised societies', one of our group members had to visit the hospital:  registration (5.5 yuan); doctor’s appointment and check up, and test (11 yuan); quick results, seeing the doctor again and the medication (80 yuaan). The whole procedure took less than one hour and costed about £10. We heard much here about the Hukou system and its relation to welfare services and health care – access to health services is possible or prevented on the basis of the location of the household registration. It is important to highlight that £10 is a considerable sum when you earn your salary in the local currency. This is especially true for city immigrants that do no hold any work permit and are forced into low paid jobs. However, at a time when the debates on the NHS in the UK revolve around the idea of limiting access to health services for ‘foreigners’, receiving treatment like this feels particularly precious.
In the meantime, another team member encountered the bureaucracy involved in gaining the basic rights of someone residing overseas. Although we were not the types of citizenship discussed in the conference, which largely centred on the rural urban divide and 'industrial rights', this nevertheless provided a glimpse of the unique webs of procedure, which enmesh certain subjects. For instance a passport photo for return travel to one of the special administrative regions, so we are told, must have a blue background along with a certified stamp and receipt. Nothing else is accepted. Similar stories could be told by many temporary residents across the globe and far worse stories by those who fail to become residents and live in extreme poverty.

Nonetheless the seemingly endless procedures would leave the unexpected and naive foreigner, much like the rural peasant who does not know their existing rights, in the undesirable situation of not being able to articulate herself to the state.  

- The Oecumene Team, 13 June 2013

About the author

  • Deena Dajani

    Research Associate
    Deena Dajani
    The Open University
    My research project experiments with Arabic oral and dramatic traditions as forms of subjugated knowledges and sites of political disputation. This experimentation navigates beyond interest in Arabic... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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