NYU Shanghai / Social Issues

The value of identity

I never fully realized how important national identity was until I came to China.

In America everything was easy because I always had the proper identification: a driver’s license, a Social Security Number, and an official United States birth certificate. Financial information and debit cards were easily managed online.

In China, many services, especially online ones, are tied to ID as well, the Chinese identification card. With that number you can purchase train tickets online and manage your bank account online. You can buy discounted books, clothes and accessories off online shopping sites like tmall and taobao. You can save on hotel rooms and movie tickets.

Without a Chinese identification card, available only to Chinese citizens, all these tasks are difficult to accomplish. I have had to either make purchases in person or ask my Chinese friends to buy it online for me and pay them back in cash. Neither can I deposit cash to my American bank account from the ATMs here; a check will take two months to process.

The many frustrations at being unable to smoothly process tasks show me the significance of the documents I carry with me every day.

I am Evelyn without them. I am Yilun without them (in fact, I do not believe that my Chinese name is officially documented anywhere). But once at the airport or the train station, I am no one without them.

Today’s capitalist society, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto said, is “a system of identities” based on trust.

“What happens is that this system by representation requires that all the representations — the credit cards, the passports, the IDs, the property titles, and the shares — be organized by a system of law that allows people to be able to trust what they’re dealing with,” he said.

He added that the majority of those in the former Soviet Union and developing nations still lack these legal systems, which can have severe economic consequences. For the farmer in South America who does not have a deed to his land, he is excluded from capitalism and hence the global market.

Thus is the extreme reach of paperwork.

Although at certain levels there are definitely many similarities between the countries, in day-to-day operations, many services are reserved exclusively for the documented citizens of that country. Perhaps we would all like to be citizens of the world and have one system for all, but sometimes it’s just not possible.

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One thought on “The value of identity

  1. This issue is quite important considering how in America things are continually getting harder and harder for people who lack proper identification. For example, many states passed Voter ID laws in order to suppress fraud — but most people who don’t have an ID but want to vote aren’t trying to trick anyone, they’re just poor and can’t afford to pay the fee for an official government ID.

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