Citizens or expats?

I've just finished reading a sci-fi classic, Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein. Unlike the execrable 1997 movie by the same name (it was a very loose adaptation), the book explores deeply the questions of what makes a man a warrior, and what makes him fit to lead others.

Heinlein's central idea is thought-provoking, whether you agree with it or not. That is, he proposes that full citizenship in a democracy is a privilege earned only by those who commit to defend and preserve that society through a term of service, especially military service. Only those willing to sacrifice themselves -- even to die -- should be granted the right to govern a society, i.e. to hold political office, and to vote. Those who choose to remain civilians retain all of the other 'civil' rights we associate with western liberal democracies -- e.g. freedom of speech, assembly, association, religion -- but they have no say in how things are run. They haven't proven that they care enough about the greater good to deserve political power over others.

This got me thinking about life as an expat in Hong Kong. I've been here long enough to have gained the right of abode, and with it, the right to vote. I've done so once, although not this year. Voting here was in fact an ambivalent experience, and reading this book helped me clarify why. The truth is, although my life and my family are deeply rooted in Hong Kong, I doubt I would be willing to sacrifice my life in the defense of this society. If things got very bad here, I'd be looking to cash in my family's tickets on the helicopters my hated US taxes supposedly pay for.

I guess there are very few expats around who are much different. Economically, our presence here likely benefits Hong Kong society -- so maybe we have 'earned' something -- but on the more fundamental issues of defending and preserving the society, most of us are essentially free-riders. So do we really deserve a say in Hong Kong's political future? Are paying taxes and following the laws enough?

This argument can be expanded to include the whole notion of 'citizenship' in Hong Kong per se. This may be why expats are allowed to vote here, even though that's certainly not the case in most other countries. That is, Hong Kong Chinese people obviously have a greater stake in the governance and political future of the PRC than expats do. But they're nevertheless still not directly involved in it; politics here is terribly local. Having the vote here is not really of the same stuff as having the vote in the USA or in other western countries.

In a way, Hong Kong itself can be viewed as an 'expat' in the greater society of China -- its presence is good for the national economy, but it's construed administratively, economically and politically to remain 'different' and 'apart' from the nation itself. And the great majority of Hong Kong people return these sentiments: when was the last time you heard of a Hong Kong Chinese kid enlisting in the People's Liberation Army to defend the motherland? Hong Kong's 'citizens' (whatever that term means in our particular context, and it's arguable it means very little) have never been allowed to participate fully in their own governance, they can't participate fully now, and it's hard to foresee a time when they actually will be granted both the full rights and the full responsibilities of citizenship.

Putting this argument in its practical context, the whole question is made moot by the simple fact that no one holds the rights of true democratic 'citizenship' in the PRC. But even if the PRC did reform, and did hold free, legitimate elections one fine future day, the question remains: would we Hong Kongers, both expat and Chinese, actually be willing to participate in the political life of that society in the most important ways, i.e. those in which we accept the responsibilities of citizenship Heinlein lays out? The recent signs here -- massive pro-democracy marches, a real interest being taken in the way political decisions are made -- are good. But how much would we be willing to sacrifice? Or is living the marginal life of an expat, whether individual or corporately, simply too comfortable?