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Extrapolating Switzerland

If you have made it this far, you are probably wondering what hare-brained idea is behind this notion of “expats uniting.” After all, expats are a pretty fractious group, on the face of it. Maybe we can share a beer in Sanlitun, admire the locals, or show up for a World Cup broadcast, but that about sums up our “ties that bind.”

So, consider Exhibit One: Switzerland.

Culturally and linguistically, Switzerland should have been carved up into three provinces of France, Germany, and Italy. It is difficult logistically to cross from one section to another, more so than simply crossing the border for trade or commerce. And yet, somehow, this nation emerged centuries ago, forming an internal alliance with a strong military, an independent polity, a currency that has survived the Euro, and a unique economic niche that has thrived despite limited natural resources and no ocean ports.

What, historically, drove this unlikely union? Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities; Verso, 1991) explains the anomalous nationalism of Switzerland in classic neo-liberal terms: the disparate cantons [Swiss towns or municipalities] found more independence in a loose affiliation within Switzerland than they could have had under their neighbors’ rule. And luckily, their neighbors saw them as ornery rubes and poor people — nobody and no resources worth fighting for. At least partially, Switzerland was an accident of history. But today, it seems more like a model for the European Union – rich, united, non-interventionist, multi-cultural, and a valuable service-provider to the nation states around the world.

Expats today are a lot like the Swiss, although sometime in the distant past. They are living in a remote canton, with limited representation or advocacy from their homeland nations. And, quite frankly, they prefer it that way – globalization rewards the unfettered pursuit of capitalism and trade. We are guests in the other nations of the world, the same way the Swiss have emerged as a desired trading partner without any history of colonialism or coercive policy. And gradually, we start to look and act more and more like each other; we may still speak German, French, or Italian, but our loyalties are elsewhere.

Ultimately, the reasons the Swiss united will have little resemblance to today’s expats; the analogy can only go so far because today’s globalization is fundamentally different from medieval Europe. But it probably began in simple ways — local habits for commerce and payments, resolving disputes, funding schools, and dealing with ethnic or religious conflict.

Which is beginning to look a lot like today’s expat world. We need health care, education for our kids, banking services, legal frameworks for contract enforcement, and advocacy in dealing with our host countries on scores of issues, to name just a few. Who is really taking care of these problems? More generally, expats see first hand the consequences of environmental degradation, lowest-common-denominator labor protections, and nationalist diversions from important policies like the Kyoto accords. Do you really think that Washington [or Moscow or Seoul or wherever. . .] is representing your interests?

The defining moment for me, as an American, came last year when “Dubya” came to visit Beijing. Huge issues demanded attention, from intellectual property to trade policy to currency valuation. W made no progress on any of these, however he did find time to visit a church and make a long-winded speech about freedom of religion in China. And for this, I get to pay hundreds of thousands in taxes . . .

Obviously I am not ready to renounce my US citizenship, however I do want better services and representation. My needs are similar to many other expats in China – it would be nice to have an international Chamber of Commerce, a Chinese-recognized contract arbitration system, an easy-to-get international driver’s license, a consumer-oriented oversight body for schools, hospitals, and insurance. . . These simple things are what is needed today.

Tomorrow, who knows?

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