Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The question of citizenship

Our little Monkey, Roman Karl Garmong, is due in July, which is approaching with frightening rapidity. One question which an American would seldom understand, a Chinese person would never understand, but foreigners who live in China do, is this: which citizenship will we give him?

To Chinese people, the choice between US and Chinese citizenship seems like a complete no-brainer. With half of China dreaming and scheming to move to America, why on earth would any couple choose to give their child Chinese citizenship over and above American?

To Americans, it's perhaps even more incomprehensible: why would one choose any citizenship other than 'Murcuhn? After all, isn't America about to build a Great Wall on the Mexican border to keep out the waves and waves of invading foreigners?! Doesn't everyone in the world long to breathe free in America? Why throw him in with the huddled masses, when he could be born American?

But the question indeed is a real one, and here's why:

First, the legal background: while the US accepts dual citizenship (Ted Cruz can tell you about that), China does not. At birth, we must declare the Monkey's citizenship. If he's Chinese, he gets his papers immediately; if he's American, we have to dash to the US Consulate in Shenyang to get his passport within a certain number of days. Either way, it's a decision to be made immediately after his birth.

Once the choice is made, there's a huge difference in his future options. The US is rather flexible; China is not.

If we choose US citizenship, that's final: he can, as far as I know, never get Chinese citizenship. He will always be a foreigner in China.

He could get all the same visas available to any other foreigner: he could come on vacation with a tourist visa; he could get a residency permit if he someday got a job in China; he could get a three-year spousal visa if, like his father, he one day decided to marry a Chinese woman. (I recommend it.)

But he would always be a foreigner, and subject to the same restrictions as other foreigners in China. He could never own a home here, he would face very high barriers to starting a business here, he would have to register his every movement with the government, he couldn't stay in hotels that are restricted to Chinese-only, etc.

He would also always be regarded as foreign, even if he stayed in China and became a businessman. He would never have the same guanxi, relationships/connections, as someone with a Chinese passport. He would never be 100% accepted. If you think it's hard in America for a Northerner to move to Alabama and do business, in China it's a thousand times worse.

If, on the other hand, we choose Chinese citizenship, the US is more accommodating. With one American-citizen parent, he could always apply for, and get, US citizenship. His passport would be issued within a day.

There are some minor restrictions on it, the most important of which being that he must actually live in the US for a number of years before he turns 18. (I believe that number is two, but I could be mistaken.) So we would make sure to send him to boarding school in the US, just like so many other Chinese-born students. Once that restriction is met, he could — for the rest of his life — walk into any US embassy or consulate, anywhere in the world, and immediately claim US citizenship.

He would then be a Naturalized, not a Natural-Born citizen, which puts one and only one restriction on him: he could never run for President of the United States.

In my opinion this is a feature, not a bug.

The current prevailing wisdom seems to be that, if we declare him to be a US citizen from birth, he could one day be tempted to become one of those creeps running for President — just like Ted Cruz. I'd just as soon foreclose that option right from the start.

American parents love to tell their kids: "if you work hard enough, you can achieve any goal you want. You could even be President, if you work hard enough."

I'm kind of inclined to tell my little Roman Karl: "If you work hard enough, you can achieve any goal that's worth achieving. If you work hard enough, you could be the next Steve Jobs." But if you want to become President, you  need to drop it.

So you can perhaps see why it's an open question, not the done-deal that it might immediately have seemed. If there are any advantages to Chinese citizenship, then we should give it serious consideration.

Now, there's one giant disadvantage to Chinese citizenship: Chinese citizens have no recognized individual rights. Of course they have the same Natural Rights as every other man on earth, but their government systematically refuses to recognize those rights. They may have more permissions within this country than foreigners do, but a permission can be withdrawn — sometimes savagely — at any moment.

Another disadvantage to Chinese citizenship involves travel to other countries. The US passport is among the most widely-recognized in the world; the Chinese, among the least.

If he one day wants to travel to Russia, he'd be better off Chinese than American. Ditto, in the unlikely event he wants to move to North Korea to take a lucrative job there. (Hehe.) But pretty much anywhere else in the world, it's far better to present a US passport than a Chinese one.

However, there are some benefits to Chinese citizenship.

One is the "social services" he would get in China.

I regard this one as a minimal consideration, because a) there aren't very many social services in China — which is to the benefit of China, imo. And b) I don't believe in social services, so on a moral level I'd rather we/he pay his own way through life than rely upon them. But we have to consider the practicalities, especially with my low-paying job.

The most important thing is education. If we're still in China when he enters school, it's a whole lot more expensive to enroll a foreign citizen in a Chinese school than to enroll a Chinese citizen. (By the way, as I understand it the Chinese public schools in fact charge tuition — but the tuition is far higher for a foreign citizen.)

But the Big Kahuna — the #1 reason to worry about US citizenship, imo — is the ridiculous US tax system.

The United States is the only country I know of that claims the right to tax the income of its citizens, no matter where that income is earned and no matter whether it had anything to do with America itself.

Suppose, for example, I were to open a business in China, providing — let's say — educational services to Chinese students. Suppose I were to become unusually successful at that business, such that I made a million dollars at it. Now, this business has no connection to the US government: it falls entirely under the jurisdiction of Chinese law, the money circulates 100% inside China, and it impinges not one iota on the United States economy. I'm not even using a US bank. It's all China, all the way. Nevertheless, the US government would tax me just as if I'd made my money inside the United States.

This is, to me, crackpot, nut-job crazy. It is despicable. It is a gross violation of the original American idea that government exists as the servant of the people. If the person has left town, and the government is in no way serving him, then by what right does it demand his money? Only on the premise that the individual is the servant of his government. We once fought a Revolution against that notion, but we've brought it right back in again.

It is among a large and growing category of US government rules widely regarded overseas as — this is their term — "economic imperialism." And they're right: that's exactly what it is. It's the US government's way of taking over the world, not by force of arms, but by force of tax law and banking restrictions and controls on currency exchange.

If one happens to be financially successful, that US passport can be a very heavy burden, indeed.

Now I, personally, am in little danger of falling afoul of this problem. The first $80K of income is exempt from this confiscation, and I'm nowhere near that rate of pay. But I would love to think that my son will be. And given that much of the world — including the People's Republic of China — has massively lower income tax rates than the United States — that puts my son at a huge financial disadvantage.

Hence, as a purely rational calculation, I actually lean toward declaring him Chinese at birth.

On the other hand, there is the symbolism of it. Both among the Chinese themselves, and among other people of the world, it is symbolically better to be carrying an American passport in your back pocket than to be carrying a Chinese one.

It will be easier for us to bring him to America to visit his American family, if his passport is American. It might be somewhat easier for him to get into those US boarding schools and universities, if they don't have to treat him as a foreign student. (I'm not certain about that part.)

There's also a kind of bet on the future.

30 years ago, I'd never have considered Chinese citizenship for my child, no matter where he or she was born. But in the past 15 years or so, my country has lost much of its luster, while China has gained. Where will the economic opportunities be in the future? That is very much in question, right now.

I have dim hopes for the United States. We've lurched massively toward statism, and the inevitable closing down of thought and opportunity which that entails.

On the other hand, the Chinese government hasn't just lurched, it has willfully adopted statism as the policy of its future. For a nation with, supposedly, 5000 years of history, it's been acting with a glaring lack of historical awareness.

So in an age of uncertainty, perhaps the best bet is to opt for Chinese citizenship at birth.

I'm not sure I could do it, and I'm not sure my wife would allow me to do it. But that actually is the way I lean right at this moment.


  1. And keep in mind FATCA. If a "US person" has a bank account in a country with which the US has a FATCA-compliant tax treaty, the US can order the bank to "suspend the transaction privileges" of a "US person" at any time - without notification or recourse or reason (just because the feds want to...) And if the "suspension" is eventually rescinded - as happened to my account in Basel - the US reporting requirements are so extensive that the bank will most likely just close the account. I don't know if a person who is merely eligible for US citizenship is (or is not) considered a "US person" under FATCA treaties. Here's hoping that you can find someone who knows.

  2. That is a frighteningly complex decision. I'm with you on leaning towards the Chinese.