Published 25 October 2011 / By Biao Xiang

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"Either Europe is something that’s real and concrete or it isn’t. And in that case, it’s better to go back to each going our own way and letting everyone follow his own policies and egotism."

This was how the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi commented on how the EU might manage refugee and asylum flows, in April 2011. A couple of months later, the debt crisis in Italy, Greek and Spain prompted other EU members to ask more loudly whether Europe should be renationalized. Denmark had decided to re-introduce custom inspections even before that, and a number of countries were calling for a ceasing of borderless travel. Given the practical and symbolic significance of free movement for post-national Europe, these gestures should not be read lightly.

A global re-focus

Something similar took place across the globe. In the landmark 2011 general election in Singapore, the all-powerful People’s Action Party (PAP) suffered an unprecedented setback. One of the key reasons for the setback was that Party’s immigration policies, which were perceived to be overly liberal. Singapore, one of the most open city-states in the world, is now repeatedly stressing “Singaporeans first” and “One People, One Nation, One Singapore.” The significant decline in outbound tourism from Japan also comes as a surprise. Youth today are hardly excited by “internationalization” and “outward looking”, keywords in the 1980s Japan. Museums of world cultures and programmes for foreign studies are losing visitors and students.

More broadly, the financial crises of 2008 and 2011 remind people that the nation remains a central protector against volatile global finance and that economic nationalization serves as a valid solution.  The US is deeply concerned about its “national economy” and is looking hard for “made in the USA” products. Political isolationism may well rise again there. In Japan, the recent merge between Sony, Toshiba and Hitachi in liquid-crystal display operations production is widely seen as a “backdoor nationalization” deal. The rise of China, surprising to many, is accompanied by the rapid ascendance of a group of globally competitive national (state-owned) enterprises.

Are we moving to renationalization after two decades of intense globalization since the end of the Cold War? If so, is this a Polanyian progression towards stronger social protection, or is it a step backward to isolation and stagnation? It is too early to tell.

Here I want to make two points.

  • First, it is hard to imagine that we will retreat to self-enclosed nation-states. Mobility is likely to continue, but mobility may mean something different. Instead of being potentially subversive of the “national order of things”, mobility may well be more forcefully domesticated into the nation centric order.
  • Second, we need to rethink what nationalism is and what it can be, and how the logic of territory-bound sovereignty and the logic of flexible transnational mobility should intersect. In contrast to the post-Cold War optimism in globalization, it is time for deeper, more sober, and more realistic reflections. Intellectual and ideological intervention is absolutely crucial.

The nationalization of mobility

Regarding migration, we see the emergence of a mode of inter-state governance of regulating mobility through mobility. Nation-states do not aim to stop mobility, but instead encourage, facilitate or enforce particular types of mobility that tame and curtail movement. Circular migration and return migration are two examples. Moving away from the earlier perception that sees permanent settlement and assimilation as the norm, the EU and other northern countries are promoting temporary contract based circular migration that involves minimum engagement with the local society. The British MP Frank Field advocated a migration scenario of “one man in-one man out”. Gulf migrant-receiving countries and South Korea proposed a “life-cycle approach” to enforce the circularity in 2008.

Circular migration put more people on the move, thus increasing instead of reducing the overall level of mobility. But at the same time it reinforces national sovereignty by making citizenship more exclusive, and by training nation-states’ capacity of regulating mobility through interventions of the duration and direction of the journey, as opposed to through simply permitting or prohibiting exit or entry.

Return provides another example of the nationalization of mobility. Return migrations induced by states have been on the rise in Asia since the late 1990s. The flows include those of forced and trafficked migrants, those of irregular migrants, temporary labor migrants on short-term contacts, and the highly skilled. Return is itself mobility, but it is mobility of this kind that it fits mobility to the order of the nation-states. By presenting the return to the country of one’s citizenship as both a duty and a desire, it naturalizes national belonging.

Furthermore, the figure of the returnee, especially the successful ones, not only reconciles territoriality and extraterritoriality, but is compellingly rendered as a trope that energizes and rearticulates nationalism. If the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is one of most arresting emblems of nationalism, as Benedict Anderson (1991) pointed out so aptly, in the time of globalization the returnee is a powerful embodiment of nationalism.

Renationalization in migration management is achieved through international collaboration instead of by returning to the national cocoons. Inter-governmental agreements are the cornerstone for managing return and circular migrations. The central tension in international migration may no longer be the one between the receiving and sending countries, but may shift to the tension between inter-state collaboration and migrants’ transnational networks.

The national self or the civilizational self

Renationalization also means ideological reorientation in thinking of one’s relations to others. A couple of recent personal encounters in Oxford made me think that stronger, properly thought-through nationalism is perhaps not a bad thing for the UK.

I took my parents, uncle and aunt (all above 65), my sister and 4-year-old niece to visit a renowned college. While we were admiring everything we saw, a “porter” (receptionist) shouted at us across the lawn: “Get out! Get out!” His stretched his arm to the maximum, finger pointing to the exit. We didn’t know how to react. More shouts: “Get out! This is a religious place. This is a place for worship. Get out now!”

It remains a mystery how we had upset him; it could be that we spoke too loudly, walked in the courtyard clockwise instead of counter clockwise as suggested in the sign post, or that my niece wanted to be photographed with the mowing machine. The point is, of course, the porter saw no point of lecturing us what we did wrong. The point was to disengage—“Out!”

On the very next day, I took my family to the equally renowned Macdonald Randolph Hotel in the city center to have a look at the tea room before I confirm my booking for a breakfast there. “Sorry there is no toilet,” the doorman in black tail greeted us once we stepped into the lobby. “Excuse me?” “There is no toilet here.” I decided to ignore and proceeded to the tea room. “Sorry there is no toilet here. There is no toilet here. There is no toilet here.” The black tail tailed along closely. My mind went completely blank with my senior family members next to me looking puzzled, nervous and embarrassed. It was my father, not the black tail, who pushed me out of the hotel.

I am pretty sure that we were asked to leave not only because we were foreigners or possibly migrants. It is more likely because that we were simply somehow unpleasant, upsetting, uncivilized, not right, out of place. The porter’s comment on religion is interesting. Modern Europe in general, and Oxford in particular, took great pride for dissociating religion from science, reasoning from worship. Though an angry man’s words should not be taken too seriously, his reference may reflect a deeply ingrained idea that defines us against others. The assertion about our natural association with toilet is an even deeper thought than the one about our dissociation from church.

It is not my business, of course, to prove otherwise if someone thinks that me and my family look odd and smell bad. The question that concerns me is: in what cognitive map are my bad look and smell recognized? I wonder whether nationalistic discrimination may be less troubling than civilizational differentiation. It is perhaps better to be kicked out because I am a foreigner/Chinese national than because of the gatekeeper’s vague disgust by me. The former is at least clearer. Nationalistic sentiment, as problematic as it is, may give us some chance to dialogue and to negotiate how certain spaces can be shared and where certain lines should be drawn. Civilizational discourse shut the door. If it is true that we are in fact much less comfortable with the unfamiliar than we pretend to be, nationalism may not be the worst framework to put our narrow minds on rest for the time being.

The "civilisation trap"

A “civilizational trap”—the intellectual constraint resulting from conceiving the world as made up of distinct civilizations—may be discernable in the process of EU enlargement. The Singaporean diplomat and commentator Kishore Mahbubani warned in 1994 that it can be “a strategic error for Europe to admit socially and culturally similar states into the EU ahead of Turkey…An opportunity was lost to demonstrate that an Islamic society could cross cultural boundaries and be like any other modern European state.” (2003: 152)

Turkey is seen different not as a nation, but as a representation of a different civilization. This exclusion can be much more damaging than the more visible “European fortress” policies in border protection and migration control. This is particularly intriguing when compared to the experience of regionalization in Southeast and East Asia. Indonesia and Malaysia have largest Muslim populations in the world, but no one in Asia had ever thought this is an issue. The shared nationalistic framework, particularly the mutual respect for sovereignty and compliance to the principle of non-interference, relativizes imagined civilizational difference. As sovereign nations located in Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia are unquestionable parts of the Asian community. Much of Europe continues to talk about “the West and Islam/the rest”, at the same time as advocating borderless cosmopolitanism and universal human rights, as well as struggling with ethnic riots and religious conflicts at home. It does appear trapped.

Is the BNP too nationalistic or not enough?

The problem of the British National Party and their counterparts across Europe is not that they are too nationalistic. The opposite may be true. That is, they may want to be nationalistic but lack the intellectual resources and proper language to develop a valid, productive nationalistic ideology that suits today’s reality, and thus misrepresent various feelings of resentment as pseudo nationalistic ideas. Nationalism does not necessarily lead to anti-foreigner, anti-migrant sentiments.

The Asian-African Conference in Bandung (1955) championed nationalism, internationalism, political and cultural cosmopolitanism as an inseparable package. Many young South Koreans today take national pride in pursuing a multicutural society and improving conditions for migrants. As hinted above, nationalism can effectively mitigate racism or at least make it more manageable. For the Third World, nationalism has historically served as an extremely powerful leverage in building a more equal and just world. It will need a series of essays to discuss why west Europe in general, and the UK in particular, have been reluctant in exploring progressive elements in nationalism, and why nationalism there often became narrow self-definition and even a banner of the extreme right instead of a productive mode of engagement with the world. It also remains to be observed how nationalism in Asia may change.

Nationalism can be good, can be bad, depending on how it is articulated. I am certainly not advocating renationalization. But the current condition does not look satisfactory and the new popular “looking inward” should not be dismissed lightly. We thus urgently need progressive intellectual intervention to prevent the possible move of renationalization from being captured by the right.


  • Anderson,  Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
  • Mahbubani, Kishore. 2003 [1994]. “The Pacific Impulses”. In Can Asians Think? Singapore: Marshall Cavendish. 144-174.