Mobility Repertoires: How Chinese Overseas Students Overcame Pandemic-Induced Immobility

Liu, Jiaqi M., and Rui Jie Peng. 2023. “Mobility Repertoires: How Chinese Overseas Students Overcame Pandemic-Induced Immobility.” International Migration Review, Online First. https://doi.org/10.1177/01979183231170835.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a near standstill. The burgeoning field of immobility studies provides a fitting framework to account for this mode of involuntary immobility caused by diminished migration capabilities. But we found that immobility studies often focus on a given (im)mobility status, paying insufficient attention to how people traverse different (im)mobility categories. Moreover, the empirical scope of immobility studies is often confined within sending societies, overlooking migrants who have finished initial emigration but face dwindling capabilities of staying in host countries or returning to their home countries. In this recently published article at International Migration Review, we adopt the immobility lens to systematically analyze how international student mobility (ISM) may be compromised or restored.

Under the influence of the “mobilities paradigm”, ISM studies tend to highlight elements of flux and fluidity that stimulate mobility in global education, including the commercialization of Western universities, the diffusion of neoliberal labor policies, and the brokerage by commercial intermediaries. Yet this mobility-focused ISM literature risks losing sight of international students’ recurrent conditions of immobility, whether desired or involuntary. In this article, we address this deep-seated “mobility bias” in the ISM literature by examining how Chinese students in the United States became immobile during the COVID-19 pandemic and how they utilized varied repertoires to retrieve mobility.

This article pushes pushes ISM studies beyond the prevailing “mobilities paradigm” and refocuses on structural constraints that shape student immobility, especially the oft-neglected role of homeland state policies. ISM policies, as we show, are not only characterized by neoliberalism and de-regulation but can also exert far-reaching immobilizing impacts on international students and guard nation-states’ membership and sovereignty boundaries.


We conducted a case study of Chinese students in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. First, we examine migration policies and public discourses in both China and the United States to highlight the immobilizing mechanisms that shaped student migrants’ perceptions of diminished mobility. Specifically, we extracted and examined over thirty pandemic-related policies and public statements made between January 2020 and May 2022 from eight Chinese and US government agencies, including the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the Chinese Embassy in the United States, the US State Department, and the White House.

Second, we conducted semi-structured interviews between January and February 2022 to further analyze how Chinese students abroad made sense of and responded to mobility transitions. Interviewees were Chinese overseas students who pursued bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. degrees during 2020-2021 in seven public and private universities across the United States. We combined purposive sampling and snowball sampling to recruit in total 20 interviewees distributed relatively evenly across gender, degree levels, and fields of study, and socio-economic statuses.

In data analysis, we used abductive coding methods and developed three levels of codes, including sources of immobility, students’ experiences, and their specific feelings and actions. We found that interviewees tried to overcome immobility by returning to China or staying put in the United States.


Our findings are twofold. First, during the pandemic, China imposed restrictive travel policies, while the public discourses unfavorably generalized returning overseas students as ungrateful, spoiled, and even contaminated. These dynamics made it extremely difficult for Chinese overseas students to return. Furthermore, US travel and visa policies, especially those targeted at Chinese students suspected of the so-called “espionage activities”, also elevated uncertainties regarding reentering and staying in the United States. The political crossfire amid Sino-US tension, coupled with rising sinophobic violence in the United States, also made Chinese overseas students feel unwelcome in the host society and heightened their immobility restrictions. They experience the dilemma of being unable to return to the homeland and simultaneously stranded in a hostile host society, which pushed this previously highly mobile population into immobility.

Second, drawing on in-depth interviews, we discover that Chinese overseas students deployed four sets of tools – online crowdsourcing, virtual intermediary, temporal adaptation, and institutional cushioning – to reclaim mobility.  They deployed the first two mobility repertoires to navigate China’s opaque, burdensome return procedures by leveraging online social media to crowdsource knowledge and expand social networks to achieve a successful return. The latter two mobility repertoires focused on making cognitive adaptations for career and life plans and using university resources to transform immobility into active staying aimed at gaining legal status to transition into the US labor market and society and achieving long-term mobility in the host society. We thus proposed the concept of “mobility repertoires” to capture student migrants’ agential power in navigating unfavorable (im)mobility shifts and carving out new mobility tactics by mobilizing a plethora of resources, techniques, instruments, and infrastructures.

Author’s bio

Rui Jie Peng, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lafayette College

Rui Jie Peng is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania. Her research interests include migration, labor, gender, race and ethnicity, and political and transnational sociology. Rui Jie’s current book project is an ethnography of the understudied ethnic Qiang women and their labor practices in a migrant-sending community in Sichuan Province, China. This work offers a new perspective on how China’s pursuit of modernization and global competitiveness capitalizes on ethnic women’s gendered labor in marginalized communities, creates and reinforces gendered and ethnicized differences, and entrenches precarity for ethnic migrants in urban labor markets.

Jiaqi Liu, Ph.D. candidate at the University of California San Diego

Jiaqi Liu is an incoming Assistant Professor of Sociology at Singapore Management University and Postdoctoral Associate at Princeton University. His research lies at the intersection of political sociology, international migration, law, human rights, digital technologies, and Global China. With a focus on China and Chinese diasporas, Liu examines how global migration reshapes the state’s political power over its territory and population. His work has received five Best Article Awards or Honorable Mentions from the American Sociological Association sections on International Migration (twice), Political Sociology, and Human Rights. Liu also holds a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Arizona and Master of International Affairs degree from Sciences Po Paris.

Managing Editor: Tong Meng


Coping Strategies of Failing International Medical Students in Two Chinese Universities: A Qualitative Study

Jiang, Q., Yuen, M., & Horta, H. (2023). Coping Strategies of Failing International Medical Students in Two Chinese Universities: A Qualitative Study. Teaching and learning in medicine, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1080/10401334.2023.2204077


A large number of international medical students are enrolled in Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) programmes in China. The overwhelming majority of these students are from low-income countries in Asia and Africa and are self-supported. These students expend substantial personal and financial effort to come to China to become medical doctors and to contribute to the healthcare workforce in their home countries. However, little is known about their educational success as international students attending Chinese universities. Even less is known about how international medical students who initially fail courses in Chinese medical universities manage to subsequently achieve academic success. Therefore, we explored the coping strategies adopted by international medical students after they fail exams during MBBS training. 

Research methods

This qualitative study was set in two Chinese medical universities in Jiangsu province, China. We adopted a purposive sampling method and interviewed international medical students who had a record of failing courses but successfully passing make-up exams and re-sits. A total of 21 international students from developing countries in Asia and Africa were recruited. Semi-structured face-to-face and virtual (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) interviews were conducted with these students. During the interviews, we encouraged the participants to describe the difficulties they experienced in their courses, the academic challenges they faced, and how they coped with and then overcame the experience of failing initial exams. A thematic analysis approach was adopted to analyse the interview data. 


After failing initial exams, the international medical students in the sample adopted seven coping strategies to help them pass future examinations and recover their academic success: (i) increased help-seeking behaviours; (ii) improved learning motivation and attitudes; (iii) improved learning strategies; (iv) improved exam preparation; (v) utilised library resources; (vi) enhanced time management; and (vii) enhanced English language skills. Of these seven strategies, seeking the help of friends, peers, seniors, and teachers was the strategy reported most frequently. 


We found that failing international medical students are not necessarily passive or lazy learners (as they may commonly be perceived); in fact, they demonstrated resilience and agency to cope with failure. The coping strategies applied by the participants in our study were consistent with the findings of others studies: effective learning strategies and exam preparation (Bin Abdulrahman et al., 2021), social support (Todres et al., 2012), intrinsic learning motivation (Hayat et al., 2018; Wu et al., 2020), the utilisation of campus resources (Banjong, 2015), efficient time management (Foong et al., 2022), and adequate English skills (Su & Harrison, 2016). 

However, unlike other studies that found that failing medical students often fail to seek help from their institutions or peers, the participants in our study reported proactively initiating help-seeking behaviours after failing exams. There are several possible reasons for these different findings. First, the university staff in the establishments in this study may be approachable and willing to help the students. The participants did not mention institutional efforts to proactively support relationship formation and mentorship or institutional support to overcome exam failure, but some mentioned that a few teachers tried to help them as much as possible. Another explanation for the students’ proactive help-seeking behaviour may be the international students’ own cultures. Many South Asian, Southeast Asian, and African cultures are strongly rooted in close social mutual support and interaction (Rabbi & Canagorajah, 2021), and this may have played a positive role in promoting proactive help-seeking behaviours and positive responses from peers, teachers, and seniors. The help-seeking behaviours may also be due in part to the fact that in China, international students in MBBS programmes live and study together in collective learning communities for up to 6 years. Daily interactions with peers, seniors, teachers, and student administrators may foster trust and support among them, making students more willing to seek support and help from these sources. This setup may create a strong sense of community, where teachers, seniors, students perceived as academically successful, and others may serve as role models and mentors for international students, advising and actively supporting them in overcoming exam failure (Arthur, 2017). Another possible reason is that intense academic or career competition may not occur among these students, as they will ultimately leave China and return to their home countries to take local licensing exams or even migrate to a third country.

Social support, particularly seeking help from immediate friends, was stressed by the participants as an aspect of all seven of the coping strategies identified in this study. This highlights the vital role that social support plays in helping international medical students (and likely other international students) with their academic performance (Sandars et al., 2014). A supportive environment that fosters students’ relationships with their peers and teachers can be a positive ‘hidden curriculum’ that is conducive to learning (Sandars et al., 2014). An important finding is the medical students’ use of peer-assisted learning in the form of group study, along with occasional individual tutoring, which has been recognised in the literature as a useful method adopted by students to overcome academic problems (Brierley et al. 2022).


Chinese medical institutions may wish to recognise the resilience and agency of failing international medical students and make positive changes to help them achieve academic success. Institutional efforts could be made to develop contextualised intervention plans that stimulate students’ learning motivation and encourage them to adopt self-help strategies by making useful resources (e.g., help from peers, seniors, and teachers) available. To pre-empt the problem, enrolment could become more selective and could integrate specific English language proficiency criteria, interviews, and entrance exams. Although many international medical students demonstrate resilience and agency, some failing students may require academic remediation.


Arthur, N. (2017). Supporting international students through strengthening their social resources. Studies in Higher Education42(5), 887–894. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2017.1293876

Banjong, D. N. (2015). International students’ enhanced academic performance: Effects of campus resources. Journal of International Students5(2), 132–142. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v5i2.430

Bin Abdulrahman, K. A., Khalaf, A. M., Bin Abbas, F. B., & Alanazi, O. T. (2021). Study habits of highly effective medical students. Advances in Medical Education and Practice12, 627–633. https://doi.org/10.2147/AMEP.S309535

Brierley, C., Ellis, L., & Reid, E. R. (2022). Peer-assisted learning in medical education: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medical Education56(4), 365–373. https://doi.org/10.1111/medu.14672

Foong, C. C., Bashir Ghouse, N. L., Lye, A. J., Pallath, V., Hong, W.-H., & Vadivelu, J. (2022). Differences between high- and low-achieving pre-clinical medical students: a qualitative instrumental case study from a theory of action perspective. Annals of Medicine54(1), 195–210. https://doi.org/10.1080/07853890.2021.1967440

Hayat, A. A., Salehi, A., & Kojuri, J. (2018). Medical student’s academic performance: The role of academic emotions and motivation. Journal of Advances in Medical Education & Professionalism6(4), 168–175.

Rabbi, S., & Canagarajah, S. (2021). Cosmopolitanism and plurilingual traditions: Learning from South Asian and Southern African practices of intercultural communication. In The Routledge Handbook of Plurilingual Language Education (pp. 82-95). Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351002783-6

Sandars, J., Patel, R., Steele, H., McAreavey, M., & Association for Medical Education Europe. (2014). Developmental student support in undergraduate medical education: AMEE Guide No. 92. Medical Teacher36(12), 1015–1026. https://doi.org/10.3109/0142159X.2014.917166

Su, M., & Harrison, L. M. (2016). Being wholesaled: An investigation of Chinese international students’ higher education experiences. Journal of International Students6(4), 905–919. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v6i4.325

Todres, M., Tsimtsiou, Z., Sidhu, K., Stephenson, A., & Jones, R. (2012). Medical students’ perceptions of the factors influencing their academic performance: an exploratory interview study with high-achieving and re-sitting medical students. Medical Teacher34(5), e325-31. https://doi.org/10.3109/0142159X.2012.668626

Wu, H., Li, S., Zheng, J., & Guo, J. (2020). Medical students’ motivation and academic performance: the mediating roles of self-efficacy and learning engagement. Medical Education Online, 25(1), 1742964. https://doi.org/10.1080/10872981.2020.1742964

Authors’ bio

Dr Qinxu Jiang holds a doctoral degree from the Faculty of Education, the University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on academic success, life satisfaction, student mobility of international medical students, and medical faculty development. E-mail: jiangqx@hku.hk

Dr Hugo Horta is an Associate Professor, Director of the Consortium for Higher Education Research in Asia (CHERA), and Director of the MeD programme at the Faculty of Education of the University of Hong Kong. He is also the Chairperson of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) and Coordinating-editor of the journal Higher Education. His main topics of interest are academic research processes, outputs and outcomes (including strategic research agendas), academic mobility and academic inbreeding, and career trajectories of PhD holders. E-mail: horta@hku.hk

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)


Bourdieusian Boundary-Making, Social Networks, and Capital Conversion: Inequality among International Degree Holders in Hong Kong

Au, A. (2023). Bourdieusian Boundary-Making, Social Networks, and Capital Conversion: Inequality among International Degree Holders in Hong Kong. Cultural Sociologyhttps://doi.org/10.1177/17499755231157115

The following summary was prepared by Dr Anson Au’s student: Yuxiao Liu (刘宇骁)

Within the sociological perspective of education, capital and distinction, existing literature has fully discussed the various ways and mechanisms of education transforming from cultural capital to other forms of capital (Lareau and Weininger, 2003). 

However, this direct conversion of different types of capital is not always smooth. With the popularization of international education, non-elite middle-class families are also able to send their children to overseas countries for higher education. The number of international bachelor’s degree holders or above is gradually increasing, which leads to the increasingly saturated labor market and increasingly fierce competition in the job market. Graduates with an international degree are less likely than before to find a decent job that meets their income expectations, which means that the direct conversion of cultural capital from an overseas education degree into economic capital is more difficult than ever (Tholen and Brown, 2017). In this context, how can international degree-holders transfer their cultural capital to other types of capital? And how can they justify an international degree with declining economic returns?

Indeed, while much research has been dedicated to examining the direct benefits of an international higher education degree, less attention has been devoted to understanding the cultural schemas that graduates acquire through foreign higher education, especially among those with non-elite university degrees whose economic returns begin to falter. Addressing this lacuna, this article inquires into the meaning-making in international student migration and the perceived value of an international education degree when its ability to convert into economic capital is disrupted. 

The study focuses on the case of international degree holders in Hong Kong and draws upon Bourdieu’s theory of practice to interrogate the cultural schemas that valorize international degrees when their conversion pathways to economic capital are subjectively perceived to weaken. 

When the ability of international degrees as cultural capital to convert into economic capital is undermined, how do international degree graduates perceive the indirect or implicit benefits of their degrees(the perceived value) and why they still choose to pay more for an overseas university (meaning-making in education)?

Using semi-structured interviews with non-elite international degree graduates based in Hong Kong, this study examines how cultural schemas resist change and symbolic violence is enacted among graduates against other degree holders in the wake of diminishing economic returns. 

Traditionally, a Western legacy of cultural colonization in Hong Kong has allowed international degree holders to remain more competitive in some sectors, but this is fading over time. 

Holders of international degrees admit that the economic returns of an international degree are declining, but they are found to justify their purchase of an international degree by recasting it as a decision motivated by values, vision, and taste. On that score, they emphasize the uniqueness of the opportunity to study abroad and vindicate the cultural riches of an international degree by pitting themselves against local degree holders, who are viewed as inferior. 

The findings suggest that social networks play a significant role in embedding cultural schemas and their effects on relations within the field. When faced with diminishing economic returns, international degree holders hold fast to their schemas in view of fellow international graduates and reconceptualize their degrees as symbolic capital to cope with the loss by enacting symbolic violence against domestic degree holders.

These schemas entrench class boundaries because it makes manifest an interstitial homology, where international degree holders occupy different positions in different fields, namely, a dominant position in the cultural field but a dominated position in the economic field. Put simply, international degree holders are led by their schemas to ignore the structure of the economy as an explanation for why they or local degree holders struggle in the workforce, ignore the costs of an international degree, and ultimately ignore the fact that they are in the same economic boat as their local counterparts.

The conclusion is that the study highlights the importance of understanding the cultural schemas that graduates possess and use to respond to disruptions of capital conversion processes. The study also shows how social networks play a significant role in embedding cultural schemas and their effects on relations within the field. The findings have implications for understanding the dynamics of class boundaries and the role of cultural capital in shaping graduates’ responses to economic capital losses.


Lareau A and Weininger E (2003) Cultural capital in educational research: A critical assessment. Theory and Society 32(5): 567–606.

Tholen G and Brown P (2017) Higher education and the myths of graduate employability. In: Waller R, Ingram N and Ward M (eds) Higher Education and Social Inequalities. London: Routledge, 152–166.

Author’s Bio

Dr Anson Au,
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Dr Anson AU is Assistant Professor of Economic Sociology in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He presently serves as an Executive Council Member on the Board of the Hong Kong Sociological Association and on the Editorial Board of Sociology, ​the flagship journal of the British Sociological Association. Applying mixed methods, his research examines digitalization, networks, economic sociology, and professions and organizations, with a regional focus on East Asia. Email: anson-ch.au@polyu.edu.hk

Managing Editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)


The role of social networks in academic discourse socialization: insights from degree-seeking multilingual international students in China

Li, W., & Gong, Y. (2023). The role of social networks in academic discourse socialization: insights from degree-seeking multilingual international students in China. Multilingua. https://doi.org/10.1515/multi-2022-0106

Research background

The development of internationalization of higher education has led to numerous studies on the educational experiences of internationally mobile students. However, the study abroad (SA) scholarship predominantly reflects Western voices and over-represents the experiences of white Anglophone students with relatively higher levels of economic privilege, who undertake SA more as “vacations” than for academic purposes (Diao, 2021). This perspective largely neglects the experiences of international students from underprivileged contexts, who pursue a degree abroad due to socioeconomic reasons or a lack of higher education opportunities in their home country. Moreover, the media often depicts international students’ multilingualism with a deficit framing that stigmatizes their linguistic and cultural resources and renders them invisible in their academic pursuits. To address these gaps, our study examined the academic trajectories of degree-seeking multilingual international students from less advantaged backgrounds in China.

What we did

In our study, we conceptualized international students’ academic experience as a process of academic discourse socialization (ADS), where newcomers to an educational context acquire the competence to participate appropriately in the academic discourse and practice in the community (Duff, 2010). For international students, socialization demands more than just mastery of academic skills, it also involves navigating different educational norms and discursive practices, negotiating access to academic expertise, and developing multicompetence for academic interaction (de León and García-Sánchez, 2021; Duff, 2010; Friedman, 2021). To investigate these processes, we adopted a social network perspective and analyzed how the students accessed and mobilized resources within their situated contexts to appropriate certain discursive practices in their quest for community participation and acceptance. We analyzed the compositional and structural characteristics of the international students’ networks as outcomes and generated rich information about their socializing patterns. Additionally, we categorized the students’ networks based on compositional and structural features to interpret and compare the role of different social connections in academic discourse socialization.

What we found

The study resulted in a typology of five networks, which include heterogeneous-sparse network, heterogeneous-dense network, homogeneous-sparse network, homogeneous-dense network, and balanced network. These networks were found to have differential impacts on students’ socialization trajectories, in terms of their capacities to access and negotiate academic norms, channels to academic expertise, and space for multicompetence development. Our findings also reveal that networks with similar characteristics may have divergent impacts. Similar socializing patterns do not necessarily guarantee similarly successful academic discourse socialization for individuals with varying agency and learning needs (Carhill-Poza & Kurata, 2021). The participants’ experiences highlight that their social networks were mediated by a range of individual and sociocultural factors, including personal histories and agency (learning trajectories, mobility experiences), program accommodation, online networking access, and more. While we agree that a balanced network can lead to “more successful integration” and provide individuals with richer opportunities for social and academic development (Gautier, 2019), expecting all students to develop such a sociable profile might seem an unattainable goal, considering the complex interplay of various sociocultural factors and individual efforts to establish, maintain, and expand social connections in students’ academic experiences

Theoretical contributions

Our study, conducted through a social network lens, went beyond linguistic and cultural challenges faced by international students in previous SA research to expose the structural tensions underlying students’ academic trajectories. These include deficient framings of international students, group segregation, unequal distribution of resources, denigration of linguistic and cultural resources, and more.

We demonstrated how social networks can facilitate or constrain the access and use of resources for underprivileged international students, and how they negotiated these social arrangements in their ADS. Our findings challenge deficit framings of international students as incompetent “others” and dismantle divisive discourse that categorizes students based solely on their linguistic and cultural heritage.

Our study enhances the understanding of community and competence in ADS research by highlighting the fluidity, multiplicity, and complexity of academic discourse communities (de León and García-Sánchez, 2021; Friedman, 2021). This complexity is complicated by the inclusion of both real-time relations and online SNS, providing myriad avenues for accessing community belonging and developmental opportunities. Additionally, our study extends the traditional understanding of competence, which involved highly “academic” reading and writing literacies, to incorporate individuals’ strategic use of interactional resources in their network channels, such as multi-national peers, families, and online friends, as they build interpersonal connections and engage with academic interaction.

Practical implications

The academic success of degree-seeking international students is largely dependent on developing in-depth and diverse network connections that provide access to academic resources. To understand the availability of educational resources in students’ situated environments and their engagement with these resources, researchers should direct more attention to the various types of social networks in which international students are embedded, including immediate social networks and virtual networks.

Educational practitioners can encourage and support students to develop concentrated and diversified social relationships during SA by implementing adequately designed follow-up tasks to complement in-class group work and promote sustainable and in-depth student collaboration. Program support could facilitate mingling between students with diverse backgrounds, while inclusive accommodation options and friendly educational policies can help international and local students establish meaningful and reciprocal relationships.

Overall, our study emphasizes the importance of social networks for international students’ academic discourse socialization and highlights the need for more research and practical interventions focused on social networks to promote academic success and social integration for these students.


Carhill-Poza, A., & Kurata, N. (2021). Social Networks in Language Learning and Language Teaching. Bloomsbury Academic.

de León, L., & García-Sánchez, I. M. (2021). Language Socialization at the Intersection of the Local and the Global: The Contested Trajectories of Input and Communicative Competence. Annual Review of Linguistics, 7(1), 421–448. https://doi.org/10/gmczhd

Diao, W. (2021). Speaking against racism: Stories of successful Chinese L2 learners of color in China. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 18(2), 105–132. https://doi.org/10.1080/15427587.2020.1764358

Duff, P. A. (2010). Language Socialization into Academic Discourse Communities. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30, 169–192. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0267190510000048

Friedman, D. A. (2021). Language socialization and academic discourse in English as a Foreign Language contexts: A research agenda. Language Teaching, 1–15. https://doi.org/10/gnpfbz

Gautier, R. (2019). Understanding socialization and integration through social network analysis: American and Chinese students during a stay abroad. In M. Howard (Ed.), Study abroad, second language acquisition and interculturality (pp. 207–236). Multilingual Matters.

Author’s Bio

Wendong (Marco) LI, University of Macau

Wendong (Marco) LI is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Education, University of Macau. His research interests are language and identity, language policy and planning, language socialization, and Chinese as an additional language education. His recent publications appear in journals such as Language, Culture and Curriculum, and Journal of Language, Identity and Education, and Multilingua. He can be reached at wendong.li@connect.um.edu.mo

ORCID: 0000-0002-0431-6235

GONG Yang (Frank), University of Macau

GONG Yang (Frank) is an assistant professor and teacher educator for Chinese Education in the University of Macau (Macau SAR, China). Born and raised in Mainland China, he pursued his bachelor’s degree in Chinese Language and Literature and master’s degree in History of Ancient Chinese at Zhengzhou University before attending the University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong SAR, China) to pursue his PhD in Second Language Acquisition and Teacher Education. Frank worked as a language teacher (Chinese, English, & Thai), K-12 education administrator, and Chinese journal editor. His research focuses on how to facilitate international students to promote their language proficiency and optimize their learning experience in learning Chinese as a foreign/second language, with expertise in the areas of sociocultural theory, teacher education and development, learner identity, and student intercultural experiences. He serves on the editorial board of Language, Culture and Curriculum (Taylor & Francis). He was the Faculty’s Outstanding Academic Staff (2020/2021) at the Faculty of Education, University of Macau.

Email: frankgong@um.edu.mo

ORCID: 0000-0001-5249-6437.

Managing Editor: Tong Meng


Crisscrossing scapes in the global flow of elite mainland Chinese students

Woo, E.& Wang, L. (2023). Crisscrossing scapes in the global flow of elite mainland Chinese students. High Education. 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-023-01023-x

The Landscapes of Global Flows: Mainland Chinese Students’ Mobility in an Era of ‘Fluid’ Globalisation 

Traditionally, tertiary education has often been regarded as a national sector rooted within a national boundary, reflecting an era in which the nation-state was the dominant territory of mobility. However, the interplay of higher education commercialisation, information technology, and globalisation has drawn the planes of international student mobility (ISM). While vertical mobility – moving to a country where universities are regarded as being superior in quality to those of the home countries – remains the dominant form of ISM, horizontal mobility (such as the Erasmus programme) and multidimensional mobility, which comprises multiple territories involving vertical and horizontal or even reverse mobility (i.e. the opposite of vertical mobility), are becoming increasingly common. Consequently, the hitherto dominant analytical frameworks focussing on agency, structure, and acculturation can no longer capture the complexity and fluidity of ISM as they cannot account for the complications of mobility arising from not only its multi-dimensionality but also from the attendants of globalisation, such as the globalised nature of social media. Therefore, we propose to understand ISM from the perspective of global flows. 

Anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai, urges us to view globalisation as landscapes of flows. His five landscapes of global flow cover ethnoscapes, technoscapes, mediascapes, ideoscapes and financescapes. They reference the topography of people’s mobility, the global reconfiguration of technology, the distribution and dissemination of information, the concatenation of ideas, concepts and ideologies, and the disposition of capital. According to him, these scapes explain how cultures around the world influence each other. These constructs are expected to capture global flows’ complex, overlapping, and disjunctive order. We applied Appadurai’s notion of scapes to study the global flow of these elite mainland students in the immediate aftermath of HK’s large-scale social protests and amidst the Covid-19 pandemic to understand why these students relocated to HK to further their studies given these turbulent circumstances and how their mainlander identity and experiences in the West influence their perceptions of HK’s social movements.

Our research employed semi-structured interviews and naturalistic observation to gather data. We recruited 30 mainland Chinese students from our case university in Hong Kong (HK)- a premier institution, top-ranked in East Asia for its promotion of internationalisation and global competitiveness. These participants are PhD candidates at our case university. What makes them unique is their educational trajectory and education credentials. Before enrolling at our case university, 27 participants had obtained at least one degree from an elite Western university considered a research-intensive flagship university, such as a Russel Group university in the UK or an Ivy League or ‘Public Ivy’ in the US. Moreover, 25 participants were recipients of the most prestigious scholarship offered by our case university or the HK government.

Regarding ethnoscape, each segment of our participant’s mobility (e.g., from mainland China to the West) was characterised by different logic and challenges. HK represented the ‘best’ compromise for our participants, mitigating their nostalgia for home (i.e., mainland China), which was not so much pandemic-induced, whilst offering superior education to the Chinese mainland. Despite their familiarity with the ‘messy politics’ of Western democracies, they generally held a negative and disapproving view of HK’s social movements. Our participants argued that HK people’s pursuit of autonomy should be subordinated to the putative Chinese national interests. We would characterise such an ideoscape as nationalistic, comprising the othering of their HK compatriots. HK’s position as a global education hub propped up, not least by its generous funding schemes (at both university and government levels), is a telling illustration of the influence of global financescape in global higher education and ISM. The importance of the incentivising role in ISM was vindicated in our study: Generous scholarships provided additional incentives driving our participants’ relocation to HK. We often take the formless, shapeless, borderless and timeless techno-media for granted because they are so pervasive that we forget their existence. Our study finds that the techno-mediascape (flow of information) played an indispensable role in stirring up an embattled relationship between the nation (HK) and the state (the government in Beijing), as perceived by our participants. The persistent consumption of Chinese social media, such as WeChat, was found to have resulted in worldview conformity between our participants and the Chinese state. This worldview normalises how our participants viewed HK social movements and social activists involved, thereby driving a wider wedge between the already segregated mainland and HK student population on campus.  

While recognising the limitations of our study, such as the small sample size, we believe our explorative study has contributed to mobility studies.  ISM, rooted in globalisation, is multifaceted and heterogeneous. To capture the complex nature of multi-sited mobility, we conceptualise scapes as the building blocks of ISM. Our endeavour represents a re-conceptualisation of the two-way horizontal or vertical mobility into more fluid crisscrossing mobility of people, ideas, techno-media and finance. Our paper also demonstrates that the landscapes of global flows that undergird ISM are crisscrossing, embedded in one another, and mutually constitutive. Moreover, Appadurai stipulates that disjunctures, instead of homogeneity, grow out of these flows. This prognosis is vindicated in our study, which shows that these flows can act as centripetal and centrifugal forces in our students’ transnational mobility – for example, social media helps bind mainland students with a shared worldview while separating them from their HK local counterparts. 

Authors’ Bio:

Etienne Woo is a teaching associate at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, where he recently completed a PhD in education. His research interests centre around the intersections of power, politics, and knowledge, with a focus on critical policy analysis, Chinese higher education, and globalising higher education. Etiennewoo2021@outlook.com

Ling Wang is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include academic work, higher education policies and leadership, doctoral education, and professional development of researchers. lingwang598@outlook.com

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)


Social inequality in a ‘hyper-mobile’ society: intra-national mobilities and formal education in China

Mulvey, B., & Li, B. (2023). Social inequality in a ‘hyper-mobile’society: intra-national mobilities and formal education in ChinaJournal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 1-19.

Background: mobility for education in China

The aim of this paper is to introduce a novel perspective on the relationship between social class, formal education, and mobility to the Chinese context. China is a ‘hyper-mobile’ society with a high level of social inequality, making it a useful case to examine this connection. A notable example of work on this topic is that which explores ‘circuits of schooling’ in various contexts (e.g. Ball et al.,1995). However, except for the limited body of work on circuits of schooling, sociology of education as field has largely overlooked the importance of movements of people for various reasons. In this study we advocate a focus on the socially classed nature of mobility, conceived of as a resource in itself. As such, in this study we seek to highlight how individuals from a range of social class factions have utilised spatial mobility as means achieving social mobility or reproducing social status.

Geographical inequalities in educational resources between different regions, rural and urban areas, and even within areas (Wu et al., 2018; Young & Hannum, 2020) are crucially important factors necessitating educational mobility in China. The relationship between educational mobilities and educational inequalities in China has been explored, albeit indirectly, through two bodies of literature that have thus far remained separate. At one end of the mobility spectrum are families with Urban household registration (hukou) who employ residential relocation as a means of accessing educational resources associated with social reproduction. At the other end of the spectrum, rules around household registration also create difficulties for rural families that have migrated to urban areas which are relatively well documented in existing literature.

We argue that it is necessary to focus explicitly on processes of mobility in themselves, as a means of making sense of inequalities in the higher education system, as well as, more broadly, the mechanisms through which the significant spatial inequalities present in China are maintained.

The research

The data presented are from a larger research project focusing on the relationship between education and mobility in China. We conducted in-depth semi structured interviews (n=40) with final year master’s degree students at prestigious university located in a metropolitan city in southern China. Based on a screening questionnaire, we recruited  students from three class factions, rather than the more common two, in order to capture experiences within the upper-middle-class, which is distinguished within the literature on class and education in China (e.g. Goodman, 2016). The factions were as follows: non-affluent (n=14), lower-middle-class (n=13), and upper-middle-class (n=13).

Key findings

Overall, the paper seeks to emphasise how mobility for education now occupies a central position in the practices of families from a remarkably wide array of backgrounds. But at the same time, the mobility trajectories of the young people interviewed for this study varied markedly along lines of social class. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the importance of ‘motility’, or the field of possibilities relative to movement, and use of them, as a potentially important factor contributing to educational inequalities in China. It explores how non-affluent families tend to have low motility, in the sense that the range of options for mobility were extremely restricted. These families tended to be highly mobile, but had a restricted range of mobility options. These narratives were contrasted with the more strategic relocation of middle-class families. Education related mobility strategies often involved mobility between urban areas, or from peripheries to centres of smaller cities. These movements served as a means of competing in the context of ‘social congestion’ at all levels of the Chinese education system. Upper-middle-class families, in contrast, displayed high levels of motility, which ultimately meant they experienced both mobility and immobility as freedom.

The central argument is not only that the experiences of intra-national mobility outlined here are different. It is also that the decision-making processes of all families take place within the same ‘gyroscope-like’ society. Thus, the familial mobility decisions of families at the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of the kinetic hierarchy are inevitably bound up in the same logic. Overall, the contribution of this study is to highlight the intertwinement of the ‘politics of mobility’ (Cresswell, 2010) and the politics of education. We propose that vastly different levels of motility as a form of capital between social groups is potentially an important factor, worthy of further exploration, contributing to the growing inequality of educational opportunity in China (Gruijters et al., 2019).


Ball, S. J., Bowe, R., & Gewirtz, S. (1995). Circuits of Schooling: A Sociological Exploration of Parental Choice of School in Social Class Contexts. The Sociological Review, 43(1), 52–78. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.1995.tb02478.x

Cresswell, T. (2010). Towards a Politics of Mobility. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28(1), 17–31. https://doi.org/10.1068/d11407

Gruijters, R. J., Chan, T. W., & Ermisch, J. (2019). Trends in educational mobility: How does China compare to Europe and the United States? Chinese Journal of Sociology, 5(2), 214–240. https://doi.org/10.1177/2057150X19835145

Wu, Q., Edensor, T., & Cheng, J. (2018). Beyond Space: Spatial (Re)Production and Middle-Class Remaking Driven by Jiaoyufication in Nanjing City, China. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 42(1), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2427.12568

Young, N.A.E., and Hannum, E. (2020). Childhood Inequality and Schooling in China’s Cities. In Clothey, R., Dilworth, R. (Eds) China’s Urban Future and the Quest for Stability. McGill-Queen’s Press.

Author‘s bio

Dr Benjamin Mulvey, University of Glasgow

Benjamin Mulvey is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Glasgow. He was previously a Research Grants Council Post-doctoral Fellow at the Education University of Hong Kong, and a Visiting Researcher at the University of Sydney and University College London. His work is interdisciplinary, and is broadly related to the sociology of international higher education, with a particular focus on China. It has been published in journals across the fields of education studies, sociology, and geography. These include Higher Education, Sociology, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and British Journal of Sociology of Education, among others.

Boya Li, Western Sydney University

Boya Li is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. Her researcher interests lie in migration, transnationalism and Chinese studies. Her PhD project explores national identifications and civic engagement of young PRC-born migrants in Sydney. She has worked as a research assistant on several projects in the field of international higher education in Hong Kong, international student mobility in the UK, and diversity and multiculturalism in cultural institutions in Australia.

Managing editor: Tong Meng


Revisiting Symbolic Power and Elite Language Education in China: A Critical Narrative Ethnography of the English Education Major at a Top Language University in Shanghai

Liu, Y., Nam, B. H., Yang, Y. (2023). Revisiting symbolic power and elite language education in China: A critical narrative ethnography of the English education major at a top language university in Shanghai. Educational Review, 1-26. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2023.2184774

English as a de facto global lingua franca is a commonly accepted concept in a contemporary global society. Accordingly, the promise of English language teaching (ELT) as an academic profession and the use of English as a medium of instruction (EMI) as a bilingual/multilingual practice have become barometers of economic globalization and internationalization of higher education (IHE). Indeed, many non-Anglophone and monolingual nations have adopted a neoliberal approach to language panning and educational development, using ELT and EMI to participate in cosmopolitan academic and market competition. Opportunities for cooperation within diverse professional industries often make ELT a worthwhile venture in the educational industry. However, the hegemonic position of the English language potentially divides classes based on socioeconomic status. Thus, the Anglophone ideology and its linguistic capitalism have long been ingrained into many non-English-speaking countries’ educational systems and social structures. Meanwhile, China has demonstrated an even more complex example of language planning and educational development. Despite the promise of ELT and EMI for many college students enrolled at prestigious universities, concerns have been growing about the decline in the number of English majors and structural problems in elite language education reflected in the rural-urban divide and resulting educational gaps. In this context, the English education major at a top language-intensive university could serve as a key site for this investigation. In China, English education means teacher education in English that aims to foster public school teachers. Hence, this study explored the life course stages of Chinese students who were originally from rural areas or socioeconomically underrepresented regions/districts and majoring in English education at a top language-intensive university located in Shanghai, along with the concerns about the decline of English-related majors.

This study drew insights from Pierre Bourdieu’s thinking tools, such as social and cultural capital, especially using his work, “Language and Symbolic Power,” to look at the life course stages of 18 students. By adopting a critical narrative ethnographic approach, two Chinese authors and one American author examined how Chinese students majoring in English education at a top-tier, language-intensive institution in Shanghai cultivated linguistic habitus and capital in the stratified realm of elite language education; factors influencing their academic major choice; and ways to broaden horizons and worldviews about prospective careers, despite the decline of English-related majors in the current Chinese higher education system. Thus, the authors conducted direct and participant observations, developed field notes, and conducted in-depth interviews with study participants. The findings showed that mothers’ involvement significantly influenced students’ motivation to learn English, college admission, and academic major choice. However, students also developed personal perceptions about career prospects while in college. Accordingly, this study suggested these four primary themes: (a) “Mothers’ Involvement”: Family Habitus and the Development of Linguistic Capita; (b) “On the Glorious Journey to Shanghai”: Motivation, Admission, Major, and Career Prospects; (c) Securing the Accumulated Linguistic Capital and Rebranding It to Cosmopolitan Capital; (d) From English Teacher to Be…”: Career Transitioning to the Global Academia. 

This study promoted scholarly discussions. Initially, it was significant to view Chinese mothers as gatekeepers and participants’ cultivation of linguistic habitus and capital in elite education from the domestic perspective. Participants’ family habitus inevitably differed based on socioeconomic status. However, the most common and generalizable factor was their mothers’ involvement in their education as gatekeepers. Mothers were driven to help their children achieve their academic aspirations, regardless of their financial circumstances. As evidenced throughout the participants’ narratives, their mothers provided financial support even if their families faced financial challenges. Thus, linguistic habitus and capital can be fostered through collective and committed efforts by both parents and children. Furthermore, it was instrumental in interpreting how participants managed their accumulated linguistic capital in the stratified realm of global education. They believed that obtaining admission to higher education institutions in the most economically advanced and cosmopolitan city would lead to numerous career opportunities. Many were initially interested in pursuing careers as English teachers at public schools. However, through socialization with diverse peers and foreign teachers and new sociocultural learning experiences, they broadened their horizons about future career prospects. Further, they engaged in extracurricular activities to accumulate linguistic capital and rebrand it as cosmopolitan capital, such as cross-cultural and linguistic competencies and professional interdisciplinary knowledge. From Bourdieusian social and cultural reproductive perspectives, while students from relatively wealthy families in urban areas have more access to social-emotional support from their parents, a greater opportunity to develop self-efficacy and cultivate positive social and cultural personae, students from rural areas have fewer opportunities to gain such benefits in the competitive academic ecological system. Due to inadequate fundamental forms of social and cultural capital, not every student can obtain entry into prestigious universities. Given the nature of competitive elite education, only some students gain support from social agents to foster a positive schooling experience, socialization process, and personal development. 

Moreover, this study presented the ethnographers’ reflexive turns on symbolic power and elite language education in China. From the American author’s perspective as an outsider, contemporary China seems more globalized and multicultural than ever. The country has hosted numerous international mega-events, promoted important slogans of actions, such as the social importance of education, informatization of education, digitalization of education, and emphasized cultural heritage conservation through its historical sites and world-class museums. However, inner cultural conflicts and educational inequality issues frequently hinder the effectiveness of the current movement of socialist education with Chinese characteristics, which should demonstrate prosperity, justice, equality, candor, and trustworthiness. From the Chinese authors’ standpoints as insiders, the mainstream Chinese academy has seen that many younger generations have developed decolonial awareness from Anglophone linguistic ideology, valuing their native language over English in diverse public places, social spaces, and cultural events. However, ELT and EMI have still been dominant in Chinese higher education curricula and worldwide, despite many nations’ aspirations for promoting decolonial awareness.

Additionally, the English education major at a top-tier language-intensive university in Shanghai has developed some optimistic perceptions and attitudes toward their career transition out of post-secondary education. Indeed, China is a prominent socialist regime. Thus, the nation emphasizes social equality of education by fostering qualified teachers for the public education system and language talents who can serve their nations’ cultural diplomacy and international relations. Thus, investigating the life course stages and how a cohort of socioeconomically non-elite students develop optimistic social imaginaries and educational values, becoming academically “elite” students is meaningful. This has positive implications for promoting critical pedagogic theory and practice in teacher education. Finally, this study called upon scholars to rethink the meaning of symbolic power and elite language education in a broader global context. From Western and Anglophone standpoints, scholars have often positioned international students from China and across the world in institutions of Anglophone higher education as potential cosmopolitan elites armed with English proficiency, foreign academic degrees, and global social network circles. However, numerous Chinese higher education institutions have also made great efforts to provide students with opportunities to develop cosmopolitan capital by promoting international student mobility and academic migration. Therefore, domestic students in China may have greater opportunities to become equalized to those international students in Anglophone nations and broaden their cosmopolitan worldviews and horizons regarding their academic goals and career prospects regardless of their socioeconomic status and sociocultural circumstance.

Authors’ bio:

Dr. Yuanyuan LIU, Shanghai International Studies University

Dr. Yuanyuan LIU is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Shanghai International Studies University. Her research focuses on English language education policies in China, teachers’ and students’ identity construction in relation to their lived experiences of transnational mobility, multilingualism, and online learning. Her publication appears in international peer-reviewed journals, such as Current Issues in Language PlanningJournal of Language, Identity and EducationHumanities & Social Sciences CommunicationsEducational Review, and so on. She can be contacted via email: liuyuanyuan@shisu.edu.cn

Dr. Benjamin H. Nam, Shanghai International Studies University

Dr. Benjamin H. Nam is an associate professor in the School of Education and a senior researcher in the Center for Comparative Study of Global Education at Shanghai International Studies University. His current research interests and focus center on comparative and international education, sociolinguistics, STEAM education, and vocational education. He is an editorial board member of the International Journal of Intercultural Relations and the Journal of Intercultural Communication and Interactions Research. He is also a member of the International Academy for Intercultural Research (IAIR), Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), and Society of Transnational Academic Researchers (STAR). He can be contacted via email: W2004@shisu.edu.cn

Miss Yicheng YANG, the University of Pennsylvania

Miss Yicheng YANG is currently a graduate student studying Intercultural Communication in the M.S. in Education program at the Graduate School of Education, the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include symbolic competence development in foreign language education, intercultural competence and capital building, and immigrant identity development. Her publications appear in international peer-reviewed journals, such as International Journal ofIntercultural Relations and Educational Review. She can be contacted via email: ycyang@upenn.edu

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun) Bian


International habitus, inculcation and entrepreneurial aspirations: International students learning in a Chinese VET college

Xu, W., & Stahl, G. (2023). “International habitus, inculcation and entrepreneurial aspirations: international students learning in a Chinese VET college“. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1-14.

While research continues to document the influence of higher education institutions on students’ identities, studies considering how these institutions inform students’ post-study aspirations and career pathways remain limited. In the article International habitus, inculcation and entrepreneurial aspirations: International students learning in a Chinese VET college we published in Globalisation, Societies & Education (doi:10.1080/14767724.2023.2193316), we engage with a new phenomenon – international students in vocational colleges in China and examine how the cultural and expressive characteristics of the institution empowered them to imagine their futures.

Drawing upon Bourdieu’s conceptualisation of institutional habitus, we use institutional habitus to probe empirical data highlighting the specific effects on students who attended the VET college. Byrd (2019, pp. 16-17), in reviewing the use of institutional habitus in empirical research, critiques the lack of attention on ‘institutional status as the source of institutional habitus’ and ‘field’s role in structuring institutional practice’. As such, we contextualise the social status of the specific Chinese VET college under research in two dimensions. Firstly, the institution’s positioning at the bottom of the educational hierarchy1 has led to negative stereotypes of its domestic students (e.g. educational ‘failures’) and low enrolment of international students. Secondly, the VET sector is embedded in the nexus between China’s two strategies of soft power – the internationalisation of higher education and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Han & Tong, 2021; Wen & Hu, 2019), which influences the institution’s action and decision on providing career support to its international students.

Based upon qualitative data collected through semi-structured interviews with 17 self-funded international students and two teachers in the VET college – Seaside – in southeast China, we found that the institutional culture informed the career choices of students. The education and entrepreneurism integrated mode of learning, in conjunction with the institution’s (in)formal ties with enterprises, hands-on experiences and the accrual of valuable social capital in the entrepreneurial field, appears to shape the students’ evaluation, perception and decision-making of the field of possibilities and the future direction of their lives after graduation. Seaside has taken advantage of its geographic location to foster more authentic entrepreneurial experiences. As strategies of shaping aspirations, students were not only encouraged to engage in a broader range of career programs, but also to visit and liaise with local entrepreneurs through the teachers’ personal network. These institutional practices, as cultural and expressive characteristics of Seaside, are structured in a way that that ‘recognize[s], reward[s], and inculcate[s] systems of thought and behaviour’ (Byrd, 2019, p. 2) based on a specified version of vocationally oriented, entrepreneurial culture.

Importantly, our data further suggest that students’ capacities to imagine career possibilities were significantly influenced by Seaside. They unanimously expressed their intentions to start up their own business after completing their studies, and some of them already registered companies and received orders from customers, even though their original aspirations were to pursue an academic route which is more common amongst international students in China. The school is a primary generative space for habitus, ‘where the student is directly and indirectly imparted with patterns of thinking and being’ (Stahl 2015). Their attraction to entrepreneurialism reflects the influence of institutional practices on an individuals’ behaviour as they are mediated through a complex mix of curriculum offer, organisational practices and such (Reay 1998, Reay, David et al. 2001). 

In understanding the issues involved with student choice in educational contexts, a number of important studies have tended to draw upon the concept of institutional habitus, which extends Bourdieu’s (1990) work on the individual habitus, to help explain the ways in which individual institutions play a significant role in shaping and influencing young people in progressing to higher education (see, for example, Reay 1998, Reay, David et al. 2001, Pugsley 2004) or imagining a wider field of possibilities after graduation (see, for example, Lee 2021, Lee 2021). This article contributes to the theoretical building of institutional habitus by expanding it to career choices in Chinese higher education. We have found institutional habitus to offer rich explanatory potentiality in understanding that aspirations are ‘not simply individual cognitions residing within ones’ heads’; rather, individuals’ aspirations and views of futures careers are ‘complex and socially embedded (and constructed) phenomena’ – formed within social contexts (Archer, DeWitt et al. 2012, Stahl 2017, Xu and Stahl 2021).


Byrd, D. (2019). Uncovering hegemony in higher education: A critical appraisal of the use of “institutional habitus” in empirical scholarship. Review of Educational Research, 89(2), 171-210. 

Han, C., & Tong, Y. (2021). Students at the nexus between the Chinese diaspora and internationalisation of higher education: The role of overseas students in China’s strategy of soft power. British Journal of Educational Studies, 1-20. doi:10.1080/00071005.2021.1935446

Wen, W., & Hu, D. (2019). The emergence of a regional education hub: Rationales of international students’ choice of China as the study destination. Journal of Studies in International Education, 23(3), 303-325. doi:10.1177/1028315318797154.

Authors’ bio:

Dr. Wen Xu, East China Normal University, China

Dr. Wen Xu is a post-doc research fellow at East China Normal University, China. Her research interests focus on language(s) education and society, socio-cultural studies of education, learner identities, and equity/inequality. Considering the worldwide growing upheaval and scepticism around Chinese language education, she writes extensively on how Chinese literacy can be theorised as a pathway towards equity and upward social mobility for Australian students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. She can be contacted via email: xuwen0826@gmail.com.

Dr. Garth Stahl, University of Queensland, Australia

Dr. Garth Stahl is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, Australia. His research interests focus on the relationship between education and society, socio-cultural studies of education, student identities, equity/inequality, and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference as well as educational reform.

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)


“Your skin is like crocodile’s”: A case study of an African wài guó student in China

Xu, W., & Stahl, G. (2023). “‘Your skin is like crocodile’s’: a case study of an African wài guó student in China“. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1-12.

In China, racialised ‘Othering’ can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn period (770-403 B.C.). The ethnic differences between ‘civilised Han Chinese’ and the ‘barbarian others’ were essentialised, with the geographic location and skin colour being used as determinants of foreignness (Wyatt, 2010). Han people, who possessed a lighter skin complexion and conformed to the Confucius moral codes, were perceived to be superior to other populations. This ideology of Han ethnocentrism appears to resonate with various forms of racism in the West, whereby differing skin colours, phenotypes, ‘ethnicities’ and ‘cultural backgrounds’ are employed as institutional and representational tools to categorise humans, so as to reinforce white supremacist ideologies (Ellefsen, Banafsheh, & Sandberg, 2022). In contemporary China, racially coded languages and derogatory labels such as ‘threat’, ‘violent blacks’, ‘black devils’ (hēi guǐ), or even ‘significant sources of risk’ are often used when referring to the Black communities (Bodomo, 2020; Daniels, 2014). These racial ideologies circulating in public spaces further consolidate the racial boundaries between ‘the Chinese Self’ and ‘the African Other’ (Lan, 2016; Liang & Le Billon, 2020).

Although much of the current research focuses on the patterns of the racialisation processes (see, for example, Carling & Haugen, 2021; Ho, 2017; Lan, 2016; Liang & Le Billon, 2020), there remains surprisingly little scholarship addressing how African international students exercise agency to reduce inter-group prejudices against all the odds and ‘bridge’ racial divides in China (Bodomo, 2010, 2012). In the paper ‘Your skin is like crocodile’s’: A case study of an African wài guó student in China published in Globalisation, Societies & Education (doi: 10.1080/14767724.2023.2193317), we presented a case study of a 25-year-old Burundian young man named Alex’s as he travelled on public transport to China’s rural areas. We were interested in both the dialogue (Freire, 2000) he established with village elders and his own self-dialogue concerning race relations. 

Informed by Freire’s (2000) conceptualisation, our findings indicated that dialogic practices assisted both Alex and the Chinese to recognise cultural differences, develop autonomy and courage. Dialogues became a conscientização process, where the Chinese Alex encountered may have critically realised that they lived in a world where stereotypes, colour prejudice and dominant beliefs oppressed their free expression and action, as well as imaginaries of other racial and ethnic group(s). Freire (2005, p. 83) would describe Alex’s adventure in China as a journey as ‘from reading to word to reading the world’. 

The data also suggested that Alex’s consciousness of himself and others was enhanced which could work to break down stereotypes, ignorance or racism which impedes intercultural interaction (Freire, 2005). The multi-way dialogue arguably liberated Alex’s voices to speak directly to the Chinese in Chinese, but also enabled him to critically read the Chinese society/culture departing from the positionalities of the Chinese. Therefore, Alex’s dialogic practices in China could be framed as ‘intercultural action for freedom’, where both his identity and the Chinese villagers’ identities are (re)shaped collectively through dialogue. 

Our finding are congruent with Flores (2021) who asserts that ‘Preparing students of color to navigate a racist world is not anti-racist unless it is coupled with providing them with tools to challenge (not just accommodate) racism’. Dialogue, in conjunction with the Chinese language, appears to be such a tool, fostering opportunities to awaken consciousness, and closing down the lure of stereotypes that leading to racism (see Li, 2021).

We advocate that the spotlight can be shed on fundamental public pedagogy concerning critical consciousness achievement among both Chinese and African communities in China. The opposition to racism ‘from below’ and in naturally occurring interactions might be expanded into social movements, contributing to reclaimed dignity and leading to collective actions that trigger socio-structural change. 


Bodomo, A. (2010). The African trading community in Guangzhou: An emerging bridge for Africa–China relations. The China Quarterly, 203, 693-707. 

Bodomo, A. (2012). Africans in China: A sociocultural study and its implications on Africa-China. Amherst: Cambria Press.

Bodomo, A. (2020). Historical and contemporary perspectives on inequalities and well-being of Africans in China. Asian Ethnicity, 21(4), 526-541. doi:10.1080/14631369.2020.1761246

Carling, J., & Haugen, H. Ø. (2021). Circumstantial migration: how Gambian journeys to China enrich migration theory. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 47(12), 2778-2795. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2020.1739385

Daniels, T. P. (2014). African international students in Klang Valley: colonial legacies, postcolonial racialization, and sub-citizenship. Citizenship Studies, 18(8), 855-870. doi:10.1080/13621025.2014.964548

Ellefsen, R., Banafsheh, A., & Sandberg, S. (2022). Resisting racism in everyday life: from ignoring to confrontation and protest. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 45(16), 435-457. doi:10.1080/01419870.2022.2094716

Flores, N. (2021). Twitter.  Retrieved from https://twitter.com/nelsonlflores

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, USA: Continuum.

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach (D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira, Trans. Expanded ed.). Abingdon: Westview Press.

Ho, E. L.-E. (2017). The geo-social and global geographies of power: Urban aspirations of ‘worlding’ African students in China. Geopolitics, 22(1), 15-33. doi:10.1080/14650045.2016.1149697

Lan, S. (2016). The shifting meanings of race in China: A case study of the African diaspora communities in Guangzhou. City & Society, 28(3), 298-318. 

Li, W. (2021). TESOL educators can contribute to the fight-back against racial discrimination and hatred: A personal view from Britain. TESOL Journal, 12(3), 1-4. doi:10.1002/tesj.618

Liang, K., & Le Billon, P. (2020). African migrants in China: space, race and embodied encounters in Guangzhou, China. Social & Cultural Geography, 21(5), 602-628. doi:10.1080/14649365.2018.1514647

Wyatt, D. J. (2010). The blacks of premodern China. PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Authors’ bio:

Dr Wen Xu, East China Normal University, China

Dr. Wen Xu is a post-doc research fellow at East China Normal University, China. Her research interests focus on language(s) education and society, socio-cultural studies of education, learner identities, and equity/inequality. Considering the worldwide growing upheaval and scepticism around Chinese language education, she writes extensively on how Chinese literacy can be theorised as a pathway towards equity and upward social mobility for Australian students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. She can be contacted via email: xuwen0826@gmail.com.

Dr. Garth Stahl, University of Queensland, Australia

Dr. Garth Stahl is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, Australia. His research interests focus on the relationship between education and society, socio-cultural studies of education, student identities, equity/inequality, and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference as well as educational reform.

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)


Expanding flexible citizenship: Chinese international school students and global mobilities for higher education

Ma, Y. and Wright, E. (2022), “Expanding flexible citizenship: Chinese international school students and global mobilities for higher education“, Social Transformations in Chinese Societies, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/STICS-05-2022-0010

There is a rich literature on the mobilities of international students for higher education (e.g., Brooks and Waters, 2022). Previous research, however, has focused almost exclusively on students already abroad. It has tended to overlook a significant development in education systems worldwide: the expansion of international schools that serve as a pipeline to overseas higher education for a local base of middle-class families (Bunnell, 2022; Wright et al., 2022). In China, the number of international schools boomed from 22 in 2000 to 1,103 in 2022, with an enrolment of around 406,037 students (ISC Research, 2022). Although international schooling has been historically associated with mobile expatriates, 87 percent of international schools in China cater exclusively or primarily to Chinese citizens (NewSchool Insight, 2019). In this article, we report on interviews with final-year high-school students (n=60) and parents (n=16) from eight international schools in Shenzhen, covering their motivations for overseas higher education, experience with international schooling, self-perceived identities, and imagined futures.

In so doing, we interrogate and expanded on the flexible citizenship framework by illuminating the emergent identities and imagined future mobilities of students from China’s international schools. Flexible citizenship, defined as ‘cultural logics of capitalist accumulation, travel, and displacement that induce subjects to respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political-economic conditions’ under globalisation (Ong, 1999, p. 6), has been widely applied to understand the identities of Chinese international students (e.g., Fong, 2011, Wu and Tarc, 2021; 2022). From this perspective, Chinese students and their families are mainly portrayed as instrumentalist, investing in Western education to obtain cultural symbols of academic credentials that are convertible to enhanced prospects for imagined futures overseas.

By contrast, we found that the participants chose to pursue not only the symbolic capital of degrees but also a high-quality, open, diverse, critical, and character-building education, i.e., embodied cultural capital cultivation for a globalised world. By aspiring for elite universities in Anglophone societies, they demonstrated a complex understanding of elite degrees as positional goods in a global higher education landscape hegemonised by the West (Marginson, 2008) as well as the core of international education as building intercultural competencies and cosmopolitan dispositions (e.g., Weenink, 2008). Unlike the Chinese international students in previous literature who have been represented as ill-prepared for Western education (e.g., Fong, 2011), international schooling experience appears to have helped our participants feel confidently ready for overseas studies through English proficiency, international curricula, and extracurricular exposures.

International schooling appears to have instilled authentically globally-oriented values in the students. The students in our study regarded themselves as knowledgeable and critical about global issues, respectful of cultural diversity, and responsible for global betterment, thus self-perceived ‘global citizens’. Similar global-oriented logics were missing in the flexible citizenship framework, with its narrow focus on instrumental considerations (Fong, 2011; Ong, 1999). Our participants maintained a strong Chinese identity, which they considered compatible with being ‘global citizens’. On the surface, their Chinese roots may resemble the emotional, cultural, and social attachments’ flexible citizens’ had toward home (Ong, 1999). However, our participants’ confidence in China as a rising global power and willingness to build careers in China set them apart from flexible citizens, whose primary goal was to escape a ‘backward’ China and pursue livelihoods in the developed world. We argue that, even though instrumental thinking and flexibility were at play in our participants’ choice of overseas higher education and imagined futures, the students were becoming global citizens with Chinese roots.

Expanding on our findings, we discusss the changing desire among Chinese families for overseas higher education across three generations: before the Reforms and Opening-up in 1978, from the 1980s to the early 21st century, and in the first two decades of the 21st century. First, before the Reforms and Opening-up in 1978, socialist and patriotic discourses dominated China. People typically formed strong political, social, and emotional bonds to the socialist rule and felt hostile toward the ‘capitalist West’. Under a strict state-planning economy, the urban population were distributed in ‘work units’ that offered accommodation, medical care, children’s education, and other essential life assurances (Bian, 1994). For a vast majority of the population, education played a relatively insignificant role in determining life chances. In this context, overseas education was unwelcome and unnecessary.

Second, from the 1980s to the early 21st century, economic reforms disrupted socialist public institutions such as housing, healthcare, and education and placed Chinese families under increasing social insecurities and self-accountability. An individualised, success-driving ethic began to dominate (Yan, 2013). Education gradually became a vital means to climb the social ladder. Free compulsory education was universalised in the 1980s, and the 1990s witnessed expansions of high school and postsecondary education. The One-Child policy further motivated urban parents to invest in the education of their ‘only hope’. Moreover, as cultural inputs from the outside world (e.g., TV shows, music, literature, food) and developing-versus-developed-world discourses were popularised, many found it hard to shake off the idea of a ‘backward’ China or uncertainty about its future (Fong, 2011, pp. 70-71). A growing desire for ‘the developed world’ motivated families from diverse backgrounds to desire overseas education despite the high costs, especially when they saw little chance to succeed in the national education system. This was the period when both Ong (1999) and Fong (2011) conducted their research that generated and popularised the flexible citizenship framework.

Third, in the first two decades of the 21st century, when our student participants were born and raised, individualisation and competition intensified in Chinese cities. With individual responsibility for educational success and future prosperity, aspirations and anxieties merged to characterise urban Chinese families (Kipnis, 2011). The mass expansion of higher education in China began to be criticised for exacerbating inequalities in access to elite universities, graduate unemployment, and credential inflation (e.g., Mok, 2016). As an alternative, more affluent families demanded overseas education, which contributed to responsive policy relaxations, including international schools’ expansion to cater to local students.

Additionally, the young generation in China has grown up as learners of the English language, active users of the Internet, and consumers of global brands and cultural products. Their global awareness and cultural readiness for overseas studies, therefore, tends to be more developed than previous generations. On the global stage, China increasingly presented itself as a rising power, not only in economic terms, but also through ‘soft power’ initiatives such as ‘One-Belt-and-One-Road’, foreign aid, peace-making missions, contributions to Sustainability Goals, and so on (e.g., Jiang, 2021). Meanwhile, the image of developed countries suffered, for example, through the financial crisis in 2008, political scandals, campus shootings, and, most recently, the perceived mishandling of Covid-19. The prestige of overseas education, especially the elite Western universities, still firmly stands. Nonetheless, overall, we argue that the events of the past twenty years contributed to the international school students’ emergent identities that deviate from traditional accounts of flexible citizenship by combining authentically globally-oriented values with self-confidence regarding their China and their Chinese roots.


Bian, Y. (1994), Work and Inequality in Urban China, State University of New York Press, Albany.

Brooks, R., & Waters, J. (2022). Partial, hierarchical and stratified space? Understanding ‘the international’ in studies of international student mobility. Oxford Review of Education, 1-18.

Bunnell, T. (2022). “The crypto-growth of “International Schooling”: Emergent issues and implications”. Educational Review, Vol 74 No 1, pp. 39-56.

Fong, V. (2011), Paradise Redefined: Transnational Chinese Students and the Quest for Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

ISC Research (2022), Data on international schools, available at: https://iscresearch.com/data/

Jiang, X. (2021), “Moving the agenda forward”, China Daily, 16 July, available at: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202107/16/WS60f0cc51a310efa1bd6623be.html

Kipnis, A. B. (2011), Governing Educational Desire, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Mok, K. H. (2016), “Massification of higher education, graduate employment and social mobility in the Greater China region”, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 37 No. 1, pp.51-71.

NewSchool Insight (2019), 2019 Annual Report of International Schools in China: Policy and Market Research (in Chinese), NewSchool Insight, Beijing.

Ong, A. (1999), Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality, Duke University Press, Durham.

Weenink, D. (2008), “Cosmopolitanism as a form of capital: parents preparing their children for a globalising world”, Sociology, Vol. 42 No. 6, pp.1089–1106.

Wu, X. and Tarc, P. (2021), “Chinese international students in a Canadian private secondary school: becoming flexible citizens?”, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, Vol 51 No 6, pp. 901-919.

Wright, E., Ma, Y., & Auld, E. (2022). Experiments in being global: The cosmopolitan nationalism of international schooling in China. Globalisation, Societies and Education, Vol 20 No 2, pp. 236-249.

Authors’ bio:

Ewan Wright, Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK)

Ewan Wright is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at the Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK). He is also a Research Fellow at the Joseph Lau Luen Hung Charitable Trust Asia Pacific Centre for Leadership and Change. At EdUHK, he is the Programme Leader of the Executive Master of Arts in International Educational Leadership and Change. He is currently conducting a University Grants Committee of Hong Kong-funded project on the proliferation of international schooling in China’s Greater Bay Area. His work has been published in well-regarded journals such as British Educational Research JournalBritish Journal of Sociology of EducationDiscourseGlobalisation, Societies and Education, and Higher Education.

Ying Ma, Fudan University

Ying Ma is an Associate Research Professor at the Institute of Higher Education, Fudan University. She received her PhD from the University of Hong Kong. Her main research interests include student experience of higher education, graduate employment, and international education (schooling). She has published in well-regarded English- and Chinese-language academic journals such as Globalisation, Societies and Education and Tsinghua Journal of Education.

Managing editor: Tong Meng


A Sociomaterial Investigation into Chinese International Students’ Navigation of a Doctoral Trajectory During Covid-19

Research highlighted

Xu, X. (2022). A Sociomaterial Investigation into Chinese International Students’ Navigation of a Doctoral Trajectory During COVID-19Journal of Studies in International Education. doi:10.1177/10283153221126247

Despite the growing scholarship on the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education, there is a dearth of specific focus on how international doctoral students perceive their navigation of a disrupted study journey from a sociomaterial perspective. It is not yet clear what and how the performative roles played by matter and human forces shape this process of navigation from their emic views. Bearing these gaps in mind, this study recruited a group of Chinese international doctoral students (CIDS) to share their emic perceptions. Specifically, it employed a sociomaterial approach to enabling exploration, with the aim of tackling the relevant lacuna and being a timely contribution to international HE. 

This study adopts a sociomaterial approach to its analysis. In the domain of educational research, an increasing number of scholars corroborate a sociomaterial approach that challenges the subordination of materials to the human subject and foregrounds messy textures woven through hybrid assemblages of objects, discourses, bodies, technologies, etc. Despite discrepancies and convergences, restoring a focus on the more-than-human dynamics, this approach generally challenges the separation logic but supports an interpenetrated entanglement between the human and non-human as a constitutive force of building everyday action and knowledge (Edwards & Fenwick, 2014). Moving away from a view of either downplaying materiality or separating it from the human, this approach adds new insights from a relational and performative perspective.

To facilitate a deep investigation, this study employed a qualitative methodology. Circulated with a purposive snowballing strategy, the recruitment targeted CIDS who were either overseas or in China when an interview took place. The researchers stopped recruiting more participants when the recruitment secured 20 participants, reaching a point of qualitative saturation in relation to the key research questions (Hu et al., 2022). Despite this being a relatively small sample size that ensures neither a good representativeness nor generalizability of the CIDS cohort, it features diversity at several levels, somewhat mitigating limitations intrinsic to qualitative research.  All transcripts were transported into NVivo 12 for a thematic analysis informed by the data and the theoretical underpinnings adopted by the study.

This study brought sociomateriality of international doctoral education to the fore amidst the unprecedented health crisis. Firstly, it problematizes human-centeredness in conceptualizing learning practices that were peculiarly complicated by the precarious socio-historical context. Backdropped the pandemic, some activities, settings and relationships integral to doctoral training were disabled, with learning space morphed, material provision disrupted and extra scrutiny imposed. These destructive forces undeniably contoured the educational experience, serving to exclude, invite, and regulate particular forms of participation (Fenwick, 2014). Secondly, resonating with other studies that disclose how the ripple effects of the pandemic penetrated multiple facets of a study trajectory (Aristovnik, et al., 2020; Xu & Tran, 2021), instigating disruption of learning ecology, intensified racialization and bodily scrutiny, this study offers further insights by revealing how socio-material bricolages were mobilized to address these plights and even transform them into empowering energies. This process is facilitated by interdependencies of humans and material forms. Whereas human actors use and thus transform material objects, things as mediators of practices are also capable of transforming human actions (Brooks & Waters, 2018).  Conversely, material environment also moderates learning behaviors. As a consequence of the myriad interrelationships, new meanings were produced among these hybrid assemblages of materials, ideas, and bodies (Guerrettaz et al., 2021).

In light of the findings, this study offers some insights on internationalization of doctoral education and practical implications for stakeholders to better support international doctoral students in the current dire situation. Firstly, it lends empirical weight to a nuanced conceptualization of university internationalization against new circumstances. For many students stranded in China, they need readjustment relying at least temporarily on technology-enabled learning across geographic boundaries “abroad” while simultaneously remaining at “home”, which falls into the category of internationalization at a distance (Ramanau, 2016; Mittelmeier et al., 2021) that goes beyond the binary of internationalization at home and internationalization abroad. Echoing previous scholarship that endorses an integration of infrastructural resources in situ and opportunities provided through distance learning via this category (Breines et al., 2019; Mittelmeier et al., 2019), this study however contributes distinct subtleties that lay bare how internationalization at a distance is compromised when it is practiced not as a fully-developed educational mechanism but as an expedient response to the sudden and massive rupture following the pandemic. The managerial, technological, operational and mental unpreparedness of temporary readjustment at the institutional and personal levels diminishes doctoral students’ educational quality. This warrants practical implications for facilitating a sustainable doctoral trajectory, during and beyond the current health crisis. At the macro level, innovation of technologies and formalization of the virtual delivery, cooperation and research should be further strengthened (Huang et al., 2022) as internationalization strategies in the interest of local and global common goods (Marginson, 2020). At the micro level, international doctoral students should sharpen their psychological and behavioral responsiveness to future challenges, mobilizing and appropriating possible resources in order not only to survive but also thrive in unpleasant circumstances. As revealed in the study, one possibility is to tap the sociomaterial potential, facilitating human and non-human forces to form assemblages that act together through ongoing coordinating work (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010) to sustain stability of an educational journey. Having said that, we must admit that a fine-grained articulation of these efforts is neither the focus of the current study, nor can be succinctly elaborated in a piece of this length. Focusing on doctoral students solely, this study has not unpacked comparative (dis)similarities with other international student cohorts such as the course-based master students. We as researchers suggest future research attend to this limitation based on a larger pool of student participants with heterogeneous background characteristics. Also, future endeavors are encouraged to shed more light on sociomateriality of international education, which we believe can contribute to the sustainability of internationalization of doctoral education in a post-pandemic world.

Dr Xu’s other Research Highlights entries:

Authors’ Bio

Dr Xing Xu, Sichuan International Studies University

Dr Xing Xu (许幸) is a lecturer at Sichuan International Studies University, China. Her research interests include internationalization of higher education, doctoral students’ evaluation of educational experience, academic mobility, identity construction of doctoral students, and qualitative inquiry. She can be contacted via email: xing.xu@uon.edu.au.

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)


Foreign Academics in China

Research highlighted

Cai, Y., Braun Střelcová, A., Marini, G., Huang, F., & Xu, X. (2022). Foreign Academics in China. International Higher Education, (111), 29-30. Retrieved from https://ejournals.bc.edu/index.php/ihe/article/view/15343

Note: the text was originally published on International Higher Education (IHE).


This article examines the experience of international academics to mainland China. The emerging trend of foreign academics moving into long-term, full-time positions in Chinese universities is an underreported phenomenon in research. This short article discusses the following questions: Who are the foreign academics in China? What motivated them to work there? What are their expected roles in local academia? Are they satisfied with their jobs? Are they going to stay in China?

Keywords: Academic migration, international academics, internationalization of higher education, China

Funding acknowledgement: Research projects leading to this article were funded respectively by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (project “An International and Comparative Study in Roles and Contributions of International Faculty and Researchers”, 2019-2023, project code 19H01640); Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR, project code ANR-14-ORAR-0004); and Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE).

Being a major global science and technology player, mainland China has become also a destination for international academics. In this regard, the Chinese government’s policy has shifted from primarily encouraging overseas Chinese to return to also attracting foreign-born academics to China. Over the recent years, the composition of the latter group has evolved. The “old” cohort of this group consisted mainly of university (language) teachers, short-term academic visitors, part-time post holders and honorary affiliates, trailing spouses, or Chinese returnees. They have been joined by a “new” cohort, foreign nationals moving to China for full-time, long-term academic positions. The authors of this article have recently conducted comprehensive investigations on this emerging phenomenon, and report on the key findings below.

Who Are the Foreign Academics in China?

The term—foreign or international academics in China—has been frequently used without a univocal definition. In China, policy discourses on foreign academics have evolved from sulian zhuanjia (Soviet experts) in the 1950s, waiguo wenjiao zhuanjia (foreign cultural and educational experts) and waiji jiaoshi (foreign-nationality teachers) in the 1990s, and waiji rencai (foreign talents), the term used in recent talent programs at the national and local levels. The current policies concentrate on attracting researchers with foreign nationality to work in China. In many universities, further priority is given to those of non-Chinese ethnicity, primarily white foreigners from the global West. Although most accurate, up-to-date data is missing, the 2019 Ministry of Education’s data indicates that there are more than 18,000 foreign academics in China. However, recent studies, including the authors’ works, show that foreign academics in China do not constitute a homogenous group. Instead, they can be differentiated by various attributes, such as scientific disciplines, career stage, gender, nationality, ethnicity, country of previous work experience as well as education, and more.

Moreover, recent studies have revealed some interesting findings. First, the most sought-after foreign academics in Chinese universities are established researchers in engineering and natural sciences, coming from the global West. Second, there is a prevalence of academics who are male, senior, and have citizenship, work experience, and degrees from Western countries. Finally, an emerging group of foreign-born academics, who stayed in China after receiving their doctoral degrees there, has appeared. Naturally, the group’s heterogeneity is reflected in the diversity of their experiences.

What Motivated Foreign Academics to Work in China?

Foreign academics come to China for a combination of professional, cultural, social, and personal reasons. The most common primary motivation is career development, since the change of location can bring better opportunities than staying in the previous country of residence. The prospects also concern salaries, allowances, research funding, subsidized housing, dual career offers for spouses and overall recognition of their track records. The second motivation is the cultural and social connection, often entangled with the professional aspect. Especially academics from social sciences and humanities are attracted by the opportunity to work in a unique cultural environment. To some of them, having strong networks in China is essential to their research. The third motivation is related to the academics’ personal reasons, such as having a Chinese spouse.

What Are their Expected Roles in Chinese Academia?

Chinese institutions’ expectations for foreign academics are closely connected to the pursuit of building world-class universities. When hiring foreign academics, the universities and research institutes seek enhancing their international reputation, increasing research productivity, promoting international collaboration, supporting faculty development, and attracting international students. Such a situation is in significant contrast with the 1990s when international staff was hired mainly for teaching. According to the foreign academics themselves, they are primarily recruited to boost the institution’s research performance and international reputation. Nonetheless, they also feel that they are confined to ‘bubbles’, being less integrated in their workplaces than their Chinese colleagues. Many believe they could play more important roles in building links between their affiliated institutions and global academic networks.

Are They Satisfied with Their Jobs?

Despite variations, foreign academics are overall satisfied with their working conditions. In most cases, those in engineering and natural sciences are happier with their jobs than those from social sciences and humanities who are more likely to feel frustrated, especially if they are junior researchers. Nonetheless, foreign academics see challenges in both professional and non-professional aspects of life, especially after a few years. First, they perceive being viewed as a possible source of conflict by domestic academics and administrators. Second, foreign academics often feel isolated from the rest of the institution, i.e. being seen as guests. Third, most of them believe language barriers exist e.g., in applying for research funding. Fourth, shrinking academic freedom is concerning, particularly to some social sciences researchers. Fifth, most find it hard to adapt to the local research administration system. Finally, non-professional challenges mainly include cultural integration (e.g., conflicting value systems), legal procedures (e.g., lengthy visa and residence permit applications), and living conditions (e.g., expensive healthcare, children’s schooling).

Will Foreign Academics Stay in China?   

Regarding long-term retaining, significant differences exist among academics with different attributes. A recent study on Europeans in Chinese public universities shows that these academics’ job satisfaction tends to decrease along with time as they gradually identify further challenges related to their employing institution as well as the larger society. On the other hand, since many such academics accept offers in China with a higher academic rank at a relatively younger age, it is logical they consider relocating elsewhere again. Still, their work experience in China become an essential stepping stone in increasing their competitiveness in the global academic labor market.

Concluding Remarks

Now the world is experiencing extraordinary crises caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the US-China decoupling, as well as the Russia-Ukraine war. The shifting geopolitical dynamics is likely to dramatically influence also the landscape of international mobility of academics. Due to the pandemic travel restrictions in China, the country’s foreign population has already shrunk. For instance, the number of European academics in China has been reduced by one third. In view of that, the evolving flows of international migration in China, including the movements of foreign academics, should be closely monitored and continuously traced.

Relevant publications

Braun Střelcová, A., Y. Cai, and W. Shen. 2022. “The Experience of European Researchers in China: A Comparative Capital Advantage Perspective.” The Journal of Knowledge Economyhttps://doi.org/10.1007/s13132-022-00982-3

Huang, F. 2022. “International Faculty in China: Their Motivations and Work Roles.” In Changing Higher Education in East Asia, edited by S. Marginson, and X. Xu, 203–223. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Huang, F., and Y. Kim. 2022. “International Faculty Members in China, Japan and South Korea: Their Characteristics and the Challenges Facing Them.” In Research Handbook on Managing Academics, edited by C. S. Sarrico, M. J. Rosa, and T. Carvalho, 338–355. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.

Marini, G., and X. Xu. 2021. “The Golden Guests”? International Faculty in Mainland Chinese Universities. SRHE Research Report. https://srhe.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/SRHE-Research-Report_Marini_Xu_Oct-2021_Final.pdf

Xu, X., Braun Střelcová, A., Marini, G., Huang, F., & Cai, Y. (2022). International academics in mainland China: what do we know and what do we need to know?. European Journal of Higher Education, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/21568235.2022.2074865

Author bio:

Dr Yuzhuo Cai, Tampere University

Dr Yuzhuo Cai is Senior Lecturer and Adjunct Professor at the Higher Education Group, Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University, Finland. He is the Director of Sino-Finnish Education Research Centre, JoLii, and Deputy Director of Research Centre on Transnationalism and Transformation at Tampere University. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Triple Helix: A Journal of University-Industry-Government Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He has over 100 academic publications in the fields of higher education research and innovation studies. He can be contacted at yuzhuo.cai@tuni.fi.

Andrea Braun Střelcová, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Andrea Braun Střelcová is a fellow at the “China in the Global System of Science” research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and PhD student at the Higher Education Group, Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University in Finland. She can be contacted at astrelcova@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de.

Dr Giulio Marini is Assistant Professor at the Social Research Institute, Faculty of Education and Society, University College London where he has worked for the last 6 years. Previously he has been post-doctoral researcher at Scuola Normale Superiore Pisa (Italy), Cipes University of Porto (Portugal), and the CNR Italy. He is member of the editorial board of European Journal of Higher Education, a journal he has been for more than three years associate editor. His research is mostly in the staff side of higher education. He can be contacted at g.marini@ucl.ac.uk.

Dr Futao Huang, Hiroshima University

Dr Futao Huang is Professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan. Before he came to Japan in 1999, he taught and conducted research in several Chinese universities. His main research interests include internationalization of higher education, the academic profession, and higher education in East Asia. He has published widely in Chinese, English and Japanese languages. He can be contacted atfutao@hiroshima-u.ac.jp.

Dr. Xin Xu, University of Oxford

Dr Xin Xu (许心) is a Research Fellow at the Department of Education, University of Oxford. Xin’s research concentrates on the globalisation and internationalisation of higher education and research. Recent books include Changing Higher Education in East Asia (co-edited with Simon Marginson; Bloomsbury). Profile page: http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/people/xin-xu/ She can be contacted at xin.xu@education.ox.ac.uk.

Managing editor: Tong Meng


Class Consciousness Construction of Rural Migrant Children in China: Seeking the Alternative Way Out in Meritocratic Schooling

Jiaxin Chen (2022) Class Consciousness Construction of Rural Migrant Children in China. Taylor & Francis.

As China’s urban economy continued to boom after entering the twenty-first century, its rural migrant population experienced unprecedented expansion, making it a significant portion of the working-class people in China. Despite their massive population, rural migrant workers enjoy little labour protection and endure long working hours, subsistence-level wages, and harsh working conditions. However, they rarely take collective action against the injustices they experience. With lacking of the central element for class formation, as the emerging ‘new’ members of the Chinese working class, rural migrant workers are still in the state of ‘class-in-itself’. This phenomenon calls for attention to the formation of migrant workers’ class consciousness.

In this monograph, I address this issue by focusing on its constructive process in childhood. To be specific, I mainly focus on the construction of class consciousness among rural migrant children, who are likely to reproduce their parents’ migrant working jobs in the future. I intend to answer two main research questions: How rural migrant children perceive their surrounding social realities and how their social perceptions could be constructed and reshaped throughout their urban schooling process. I conducted qualitative investigations in two primary schools – one private migrant school and one public school in Beijing between June 2014 and April 2015. Data were drawn from document reviews, questionnaires, interviews, and school observations conducted in the two case schools.

This book borrows Paulo Freire’s works on two states of consciousness – false and critical – of the oppressed to conceptualise an analytic framework. Findings reveal that, even at their young age, rural migrant children had already developed an awareness of manual workers’ poor working conditions and inferior situation relative to their employers. They distinguished between manual and mental labour, firmly subscribing to the latter’s superiority. They also believed in meritocracy, seeing workers’ educational failures as the primary cause of their falling into and being limited to physical labour and their adversities. Because of their perceptions of a hierarchical social structure, rural migrant children favoured mental-labour-oriented occupations and expected to become employers to differentiate themselves from their parents, who mainly worked as manual labourers. However, although rural migrant children considered the employment regime as the critical mechanism of exploitation, they tended to blame incidents of exploitation on the poor moral quality of individual employers and workers’ bad luck.

Such attribution features make it unlikely that these children would take collective action to improve their future employment relations. Indeed, many of them rejected the collective action migrant workers could have performed in the labour market. Therefore, if these migrant children eventually become the next generation of China’s new workers, they may adopt similar strategies as their parents and the current migrant working class, such as enduring hardships and relying upon the employers’ morality and conscience (not workers themselves) to initiate action for improvement.

This book proves that the formation of class consciousness begins early in one’s childhood. However, rural migrant children’s interpretations of perceived class-based inequalities and their intended actions to achieve future improvements showed a state of false consciousness overshadowed by individualism, meritocracy, and the duality of images. More importantly, such dominant ideologies of individualism and meritocracy and the depreciation of migrant workers were strongly embraced by migrant families and school environments, the two most significant institutions shaping migrant children’s class consciousness construction.

The family context plays an important role in revealing the problematic situation of the migrant working class in mainstream society to rural migrant children, allowing them to develop their awareness. However, it must be admitted that migrant parents’ passive acceptance of their bosses’ labour abuses could also send their children the message that workers are weak and have no choice but to swallow the abuse and endure.

Schools, therefore, are expected to play a pivotal role in cultivating children’s critical consciousness, from offering oppressed children a chance to identify that they are situated in social, political, and economic contradictions to problematising the contradictions of (and eventually initiating collective actions against) social oppression. Nevertheless, as discussed in this book, such a possibility is also in danger and challenged by the current schooling system. As investigated, all teachers at the two case schools were committed to the ideology that ‘education changes destiny.’ Like migrant parents, teachers also saw studying hard as the only conceivable way for migrant children to climb the social ladder, even though only a token number would ever enter university and become white-collar professionals, and most would be tracked into vocational education or directly into the labour market. Despite the good intentions underlying teachers’ work to motivate migrant children to study, teachers’ negative narrations of migrant parents embedded within the schools’ educational meritocracy further reinforced rural migrant children’s recognition of manual workers’ inferiority in the labour market.

A small group of teachers in the private migrant school actively attempted to unravel the issues of social inequality among their migrant students in the school context. Nevertheless, labour issues were still rarely addressed in the school context or, again, were viewed from the perspective of the migrant–local/rural-urban dichotomy. Additionally, teachers’ limited teaching competency in the migrant school significantly constrained the quality of their initial attempts to critically analyse class-based inequalities with migrant children.

In this vein, neither the migrant children nor the adults and institutions surrounding them had enough exposure to conceptual resources to form critical views of social inequalities from the class dimension. The above findings suggest that the current lack of collective resistance among China’s ‘new workers’ may result from workers’ strong belief in meritocracy and internalisation of the employer position they developed in their youth while in school.

Overall, this book bridges the research gap by applying a critical class perspective to the analysis of migrant children’s perception of their and their working-class parents’ experiences of marginalisation and exclusion in urban society and the influence of urban schooling thereon. These findings also provide empirical evidence to verify Freire’s explanation of the development of oppressed people’s social consciousness from a Chinese perspective.

Author Bio

Dr Jiaxin Chen, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Dr Jiaxin Chen is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Applied Social Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong. Her research interests include rural-urban inequalities and labour migration in China, academic mobility, parenting, and rural community development. She is particularly interested in investigating social issues via the sociological lens and qualitative methods. She is currently working on two research projects, academic returnees’ cultural adaptation in Chinese higher education system (funded by Early Career Scheme from Hong Kong Research Grants Council) and rural migrant parents’ involvement in children’s education in China.

Managing editor: Tong Meng


From Female Graduates to Female Insurance Agents: Educationally Channeled Labour Mobility from Mainland China to Hong Kong

Research highlighted

Zhou, S. & Song, J. (2022). From Female Graduates to Female Insurance Agents: Educationally Channeled Labor Mobility from Mainland China to Hong Kong. Journal of Chinese Women’s Studies, 171(3). Available at: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/kopLQ74k-9n8I3ShrZtwWA


In the increasingly interwoven global trends of educational mobility and labor migration, a growing number of young women have obtained higher education and acquired greater labor mobility, and have been involved in service work that is more professional and with higher job status. Nevertheless, educational mobility and labor migration are commonly regarded as two independent research fields. Education migration is often related to a promotion of employment opportunities for young people, which provides chances of social upward mobility for men and women. For labor migration studies from a gender perspective, female migrants are often found to concentrate in labor-intensive and low-paid service work. Little attention has been paid to the field where the two topics are related. In Hong Kong, due to the cross-border expansion of the insurance industry in recent years, many female graduates from mainland China have benefited from their cultural capital and cross-border social connections and have been recruited as insurance agents. This study examines the gendered experiences of cross-border labor mobility of these atypical skilled migrants and professional service workers.

This study adopted a qualitative research approach based on in-depth interviews with 32 female graduates who had mainland backgrounds and worked as insurance agents in Hong Kong. The study also draws on participant observation of their work and life, as well as online ethnography about how individuals and companies presented such cross-border labor mobility on social media. To examine women’s educationally channeled labor mobility, this study focuses on how they were recruited and why they chose to become insurance agents. The findings indicate that Hong Kong’s cross-border insurance business tended to recruit highly educated women with mainland backgrounds as professional, independent, and elite women, meanwhile with an emphasis on their patient and empathetic femininity. Such narratives restructured and reinforced gender stereotypes prevalent in service work. These highly educated women were able to utilize human capital and cross-border freedom to pursue greater autonomy in career choice against the control of natal families in places of origin. Nevertheless, these young women also faced a double marginality in the host labor market regarding gender and geography, and they still needed to balance family obligations and career aspirations over the life course. Women’s cross-border mobility helped them to pursue individualistic aspirations and negotiate new career pathways, which challenged traditional gender stereotypes in low-end feminized service work, but their professional and independent workplace images were still constrained by the gendered division of labor and structural inequalities in public and private spheres.

By focusing on female graduates in the cross-border insurance industry, this study demonstrates how the intersection of educational mobility and labor migration can provide new employment opportunities for highly educated women. To some extent, women’s cross-border participation in professional service work has undermined traditional gender role expectations, but their personal choices have not formed a fundamental challenge to gender and structural inequalities in the labor market and domestic spheres. Bridging the two research traditions on educational mobility and labor migration, this study suggests incorporating women’s education-based resource and horizon into the study of their working experience in the host labor market, and linking women’s diverse career choices with their evolving gendered self-positioning processes. The new perspectives can add to a better understanding of how women’s migration brings about new economic opportunities as well as social pressure, and contribute to a more comprehensive reflection on the gender and social implications of women’s evolving career choices.

Author Bio

Siyuan Zhou (周思媛),
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Ms. ZHOU Siyuan (周思媛) is a Ph.D. candidate in Gender Studies Programme and the Department of Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include gender and work, migration, and female entrepreneurship. Her doctoral project is about “doing gender” and “doing business” between Hong Kong and mainland China among female IANG insurance agents (Email: siyuanzhou@link.cuhk.edu.hk).

Dr. Jing Song (宋婧),
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Dr. Jing Song (宋婧) is an Associate Professor in Gender Studies Programme at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and an Associate Researcher (by courtesy) at Shenzhen Research Institute, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include family, gender, work, urbanization, migration and China’s market transition. She has published in China Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary China, Urban Studies, Journal of Rural Studies, Work Employment and Society, Population Space and Place, China Review, Journal of Sociology, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Housing Studies, Asian Anthropology, and so on. Her book Gender and Employment in Rural China was published in 2017 by Routledge (Email: jingsong@cuhk.edu.hk).

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun) Bian


Reimagining Chinese diasporas in a transnational world: toward a new research agenda

Shibao Guo (2022) Reimagining Chinese diasporas in a transnational world: toward a new research agenda, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 48:4, 847-872, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2021.1983958.

Prof. Shibao Guo from the University of Calgary guest edited a special issue for the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies – Chinese Diaspora Studies in a Transnational World – which was published in Volume 48, Issue 4, 2022. This special issue examines the changing nature of the Chinese diasporas in a transnational world and its concomitant implications for Chinese diaspora studies internationally. In the research agenda-setting Introduction, Prof. Guo theorizes the new patterns of Chinese diasporas which can be characterized by unprecedented hypermobility, hyperdiversity, and hyperconnectivity. Such characterizations depict the global dispersal of overseas Chinese as one of the most hyperdiverse groups with substantial sub-group differences that distinguish it from most other diasporas. This special issue consists of six empirically-based articles on Chinese diasporas studies, from a variety of disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives, by scholars from different parts of the world. Their perspectives have contributed to the existing Chinese diasporas literature and the interdisciplinary fields of ethnic, migration and mobility studies. Here are the links to the special issue:

Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies: Vol 48, No 4 (tandfonline.com)

Full article: Reimagining Chinese diasporas in a transnational world: toward a new research agenda (tandfonline.com)

Author Bio

Professor Shibao Guo, University of Calgary, Canada

Dr. Shibao Guo is Professor at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. Over the past twenty years as a transnational academic and scholar, Dr. Guo has developed research expertise in the areas of transnational migration, Chinese diasporas studies, ethnic and race relations, and comparative and international education. His research has been funded by a number of organizations, including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; International Organization for Migration; and Education International. Prof. Guo has numerous publications including books, journal articles, and book chapters. His latest books include: Decolonising lifelong learning in the context of transnational migration (Routledge, 2020), Immigration, racial and ethnic studies in 150 years of Canada: Retrospects and prospects (Brill|Sense, 2018). He is former president of Canadian Ethnic Studies Association (CESA) and the Comparative and International Education Society of Canada (CIESC). Currently he is co-editor of Canadian Ethnic Studies and two book series for Brill|Sense Publishers: Transnational Migration and Education and Spotlight on China.

Managing editor: Tong Meng


Mobile educational space and imaginative travellers in-situ: A case study of a UK international branch campus

Research highlighted

Jingran Yu (2022) Mobile educational space and imaginative travellers in-situ: A case study of a UK international branch campus in ChinaSocial & Cultural Geography, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2022.2055780

An increased awareness has emerged within academia of how international student mobility (ISM) intensifies differentiation within global educational geographies, consolidating the educational power of certain institutions within specific countries, and consequently entrenching and sometimes even creating socio-spatial inequalities (e.g., Brooks & Waters, 2011; Findlay et al., 2012; Waters, 2012). In contrast, transnational education (TNE), ‘in which the learners are located in a country different from the one where the awarding institution is based’ (Council of Europe, 2002), enables students to receive international education in situ. Instead of the corporeal movement of students, in TNE, it is the education provider that is on the move, incorporating various interdependent movements of educational resources, including teaching materials, knowledge, information, and even staff and institutions. Thus, TNE seems to hold great potential for promoting the reconfiguration of educational geographies through its important role in connecting educational institutions and participants across different places and influencing the (re)distribution of educational resources and power across global space (Leung & Waters, 2013). However, compared to ISM, TNE remains under-researched. The few empirical studies that have explored this topic have concluded that its value has been fundamentally compromised owing to the lack of corporeal mobility (e.g., Waters, 2017, 2018).

This paper challenges the predominant representation of TNE students merely in terms of their corporeal immobility and problematizes the neglect of spatiality and materiality of international branch campuses (IBCs) in extant studies. Based on a case study of a UK international branch campus in China, it incorporates interview narratives and ethnographic observations to reveal the students’ experiences and imaginations, and to delineate the unique texture of the spatiality of the campus. It is worth noticing that IBCs in China are required to take the form of ‘Chinese-Foreign Cooperative Universities’, i.e. ‘joint-venture IBCs’ in the expanded definition provided by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (Garrett et al., 2016). The power balance between the Chinese and foreign partners has profound influences on the spatiality of the campus. In this case study, this power balance between the Chinese and British partners has resulted in the unique layout of the university campus which is roughly divided into two halves: the Academic Area, controlled by the British partner, and the Living Area, where the Chinese partner is mainly in charge. 

In this paper, I present the case-study IBC as an infrastructure of (im)mobilities, which is both locally embedded and transnationally connected. On the one hand, this paper explores how transnational imaginations are enabled by the immobile materiality of the IBC in three dimensions: the material space, the virtual space, and the relational space. On the other hand, informed by the perceived–conceived–lived conceptual triad (Lefebvre, 1991/2014), this paper investigates Chinese students’ imaginative spaces by looking at how they perceive, experience, and conceive various spaces, on the basis of which they develop a sense of (not) belonging. This is where issues emerge around ‘whose space’ it is when the control over space is challenged. IBC space and its imagination, as intended by the TNE institution, may not always coincide with the ideas of the students and their imaginative space. At times, the two may collide. 

As the students embody transnational imaginations and mobilities in situ, they are transformed into what I perceive as imaginative travellers, who never physically travel abroad but whose being and belonging have been constantly informed and negotiated in relation to their everyday transnational experiences. Travelling between two different spaces, the Academic Area and the Living Area, the national and the transnational setting, has become a daily routine for the students, contributing to their embodiment of transnational mobilities in an imaginative form and giving shape to the transnational imaginative space they conceive. Informed by their own predispositions, students have developed transnational spatial imaginations, according to which they make differentiated judgements about the different styles in the material environment they inhabit and develop a sense of (non)belongingness to different cultures through their spatial experiences. In everyday spatial practice, imagined and actual spaces may sometimes reinforce and sometimes negate each other. Students then develop a sense of ‘our’ and ‘their’ space – a sense of belonging and not belonging – in their perceptions, experiences, and conceptions. This may have coloured their perceptions, leading to a value-laden appreciation of the space in the Academic Area as well as their simultaneous dislike of the space in the Living Area.

The findings have teased out the ways in which transnational imaginations are enabled by immobile materiality of the IBC, and how students consequently construct their imaginative space, revealing the dynamic interrelations between imagination, materiality, and (im)mobility in (transnational) educational spaces. As international student mobility (in the sense of corporeal mobility) has intensified, and sometimes even created socio-spatial inequalities in global educational geographies, it is important for scholars to pay attention to the imaginative mobilities enabled by TNE because ‘imagination is an essentially creative act that facilitates people’s ability to move beyond structural imbalances of power and economic constraints’ (Salazar, 2020, p. 773). Indeed, imaginative mobility may not be a substitute for corporeal mobility, but may instead change the very nature of being co-present. Accordingly, our views on the emplacement of education, as either here (domestic education) or there (international education), also need to expand to include educational spaces that can be both here and there, that is, trans-national. Contributing to the early discussions about IBCs as infrastructures of (im)mobility, what is novel in this paper is that it offers detailed depictions of the imaginative process, in which spatial imagination and imaginative space (re)produce each other, and are complicated by the various sources of power at play. Drawing upon thick ethnographic data, this paper offers a unique case study of a Chinese-Foreign Cooperative University in which the power balance between the British and Chinese partners has profound implications on the uneven spatiality of the campus. It is important to pay attention to the ‘unevenness of imagination flows’ (Lipura & Collins, 2020), which is subject to political economy in the wider sociocultural context, in which the mythological ‘West’ is often considered ‘legitimate’ and imbued with much higher symbolic value than ‘the rest’. Students, whom I call ‘imaginative travellers’, have tended to display a proximity to ‘the West’, which is physically distant and where most of them have never been, in contrast to ‘the Chinese’ where they are actually located but from which they are imaginatively distant. This may reinforce the existing symbolic power of the West in the global stratification of knowledge.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Jingran Yu (余婧然),
Xiamen University, China

Dr. Jingran Yu (余婧然) is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Education, Xiamen University, China, and an Honorary Research Associate at the School of Environment, Education and Development (SEED), the University of Manchester, the United Kingdom. She received a doctorate degree in Sociology from the University of Manchester, and won the British Educational Research Association (BERA) 2021 Doctoral Thesis Award for her thesis. Her research interests lie at the intersection of sociology, education, and human geography, with a focus on internationalisation of higher education and socio-spatial (im)moblities. She can be contacted at: yujingran@xmu.edu.cn or jingran.yu@manchester.ac.uk.

Managing editor: Lisa(Zhiyun) Bian


Cultural Capital and Elite University Attendance in China

Research highlighted

Anning, Hu. & Xiaogang, Wu. (2021). Cultural Capital and Elite University Attendance in China. British Journal of Sociology of Education 42(8): 1265-1293.

Despite a plethora of research, the association between cultural capital and educational inequality does not appear to follow the same pattern. Against this backdrop, an increasing number of scholars have shifted attention to the socio-institutional context in which the consequences of cultural capital vary. This is a necessary enterprise since the concept of cultural capital was proposed in the first place in the French context. In this article, we make contributions to the literature by investigating how cultural capital, among college attendees, relates to the likelihood of attending an elite university when most students are subject to standardized tests.

The research environment is China, where the standardized National College Entrance Examination (NCEE), commonly known as gaokao in China, is institutionalized as an annually-held prerequisite academic examination for the entrance into almost all higher education institutions at the undergraduate level. It is standardized in the sense that both examination subjects and examination questions are highly structured and oriented toward the evaluation of cognitive skills. Hence, what we are interested in is: under the NCEE, how cultural capital relates to one’s chance of attending an elite university. For the purpose of comparison, we also examine how cultural capital is associated with elite university attendance by virtue of exempting the NCEE, a supplementary pathway to college that is geared to overcome the NCEE’s partial emphasis of cognitive skills by taking into account the exceptional or special talents of students.

Drawing on data from the Beijing College Students Panel Survey (BCSPS), we show that (1) on average, objectified cultural capital is negatively associated with the likelihood of attending an elite university whereas embodied cultural capital shows a positive effect; (2) both types of cultural capital enhance the proficiencies of extracurricular activities, which are negatively associated with all quantiles of the NCEE score so as to curtail the odds of getting into an elite university; (3) both types of cultural capital cannot guarantee the attendance of an elite university by improving one’s learning capabilities, since learning capabilities only raise the middle and lower quantiles of the NCEE score; (4) finally, only embodied cultural capital helps one attend an elite university by virtue of exempting the NCEE.

This study highlights how a standardized examination system could come into force to affect the association between cultural capital and the formation of horizontal stratification. Under the NCEE, at least based on the experiences of China, objectified cultural capital is a damping factor for people’s likelihood of getting into a selective university. Although it has the potential of improving students’ learning capabilities, such an improvement does not seem to affect the high end of the NCEE performances. In this regard, the theory of cultural reproduction seems to be hard to maintain when the access to selective educational resources is more structurally determined. Since objectified cultural capital differentials in a population has always been an indicator of the existing class stratification, the negative effect under the NCEE implies that standardized examination could play the role of the “equalizer” in societies with a holistic evaluation system.

This article also suggests that the process of cultural reproduction as described by Bourdieu could come into being if such a standardized examination system is lifted or circumvented. Embodied cultural capital, for instance, is noted to enhance one’s chance of getting into an elite university through exemption of the NCEE. Although the evaluations faced by those who are exempted from the NCEE are not identical with the holistic evaluations adopted in other societies, the gist is indeed similar. Unsurprisingly from the Bourdiausian perspective, this pathway to higher education significantly attracts those with higher endowment of embodied cultural capital, thus bridging cultural capital and educational outcome.

The mechanisms undergirding the link between cultural capital and elite university attendance under the NCEE are more nuanced than conventionally assumed. Metaphorically speaking, cultural capital is a double-edged sword: objectified cultural capital simultaneously raises and lowers one’s standardized test score. Nevertheless, the positive mechanism only works for the middle and lower quantiles of the test score, but the negative mechanism can be extended to the higher quantiles. These two mechanisms jointly lead to the overall negative influences of objectified cultural capital on the odds of getting into an elite university. As for embodied cultural capital, it also plays both a positive and a negative role: it reduces the odds of elite university attendance by weakening students’ performance in the NCEE on the one hand, but helps one get into a selective institution through NCEE exemption on the other hand. Relatively, the overall positive effect of embodied cultural capital suggests that the positive pathway overrides the negative one. Hence, the educational consequences of cultural capital are not a simple yes-or-no matter, but a combination of multiple possibly mutually competing forces. More mechanism-oriented research is called for to reveal the complex formative process in the educational consequences of cultural capital.

Authors’ Bio

Dr. Anning Hu, Fudan University

Dr. Anning Hu is a Professor of Sociology and the vice Dean of Graduate School at Fudan University. His research interests include social inequality, education, religion, trust, culture, and social research methods. Hu has published over 90 academic articles and three monographs, with research appearing in major sociological outlets, such as British Journal of Sociology, Sociology, Social Science Research, Journal of Marriage and Family, Poetics, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, Demographic Research, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Sociological Quarterly, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, and The China Quarterly, to name a few. He can be contacted by huanning@fudan.edu.cn.

Dr. Xiaogang Wu, NYU Shanghai

Dr. Xiaogang Wu is the Yufeng (御风) Global Professor of Social Science, Area Head of Social Sciences, and Director of the Center for Applied Social and Economic Research (CASER) at NYU Shanghai. Wu also holds an appointment as Professor of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Science at NYU. Wu was the recipient of the US National Academy of Education/Spencer Post-doctoral Research Fellowship for 2006 to 2007, the Asia and Asian American Early Career Award from the American Sociological Association in 2007, and the Prestigious Fellowship in Humanities and Social Sciences by the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong in 2012. Wu is currently the President of the International Chinese Sociological Association and the founding editor of the Chinese Sociological Review. He can be contacted by xw29@nyu.edu.


“From ‘Sea Turtles’ to ‘Grassroots Ambassadors’: The Chinese Politics of Outbound Student Migration.”

Research highlighted

Liu, Jiaqi M. “From ‘Sea Turtles’ to ‘Grassroots Ambassadors’: The Chinese Politics of Outbound Student Migration.” International Migration Review, (November 2021). https://doi.org/10.1177/01979183211046572.

Jiaqi Liu, University of California, San Diego

Global student migration is on the rise. As of 2017, over six-million tertiary students were studying outside their origin countries. International students exert enormous economic impacts, contributing $45 billion to the US economy alone in 2018. On the other side of the migratory channel, China has steadily established itself as the world’s largest source country of student migrants since 1998, when the earliest UNESCO data are available, with the global percentage of Chinese student migrants more than doubling from 7% in 1998 to 17% in 2017.

Given that China is the world’s most populous country, it may not be surprising that China also has the largest number of overseas students. However, the mammoth size of the Chinese student population abroad is not a historical constant. In 1978, when China began promoting large-scale outbound student migration, it had only 860 overseas students. In less than four decades, this number ballooned by 535 times to 460,000 in 2014. Scholars attribute this dramatic growth to a constellation of domestic factors, including the rising Chinese middle class and their conversion of economic capital into cultural capital, China’s competitive domestic education system, the Confucian pursuit of better education, the brokerage of commercial education agents, and pull factors in destination countries.

Nonetheless, the existing literature on international student migration/mobility (ISM) pays scant attention to China’s changing policies toward outbound student migration. Constrained by the prevalent immigration bias in migration studies, scholars tend to focus on host countries’ international education and post-graduation employment policies regarding inbound student migrants, while casting less attention on sending countries. This article, by examining China, the largest origin country of student migrants in the world, illuminates how home countries regulate and strategize about overseas students.

Utilizing three qualitative methods, including a historical policy review, an ethnography in state-organized summer camps for overseas students, and interviews with student migrants and migration officials, I propose two main arguments. First, I argue that the Chinese outbound student migration politics – which I define as the collectivity of the homeland state’s policies, practices, and rhetorics toward overseas students – serves three policy objectives: economic, governmental, and geopolitical. These objectives, however, are not set in stone. Rather, their relative significance ebbs and flows, depending on the sending country’s specific socioeconomic and political conditions. As I show, following decades of prioritizing the economic and governmental impacts of student returnees (haigui, or colloquially “sea turtles”) in boosting the domestic economy and maintaining political stability, the Chinese state now gives growing weight to student migrants’ geopolitical value as “grassroots ambassadors” (minjian dashi) in expanding China’s global influence and enhancing national image abroad. This geopolitical reorientation has become particularly salient under the Xi Jinping leadership, as China adopts more assertive soft power strategies in pursuit of global supremacy.

Drawing on ethnographic and interview data, my second argument suggests that the geopolitics-focused reorientation of China’s OSM policy may not be well received among student migrants nor fully implemented by migration officials at the grassroots or local level. Whereas Chinese students faced surging espionage accusations across the world in recent years, I refrain from taking for granted the close political ties between the Chinese state and overseas students, as depicted in rhetorical flourish by the Western media and Chinese national strategies. Instead, I examine the on-the-ground disjuncture between the central Chinese state, student migrants, and frontline bureaucrats. Based on grounded empirical research, I shed new light on the OSM politics as a contentious field where state ambitions crosscut individual desires and where national grand plans are confronted with flexible local improvisation.

In particular, I conducted participant observation in three state-run, voluntary retreats for overseas students in an emigrant hometown in southeast China. Following my interviews with migration officials, I was invited by these trips’ organizers to participate in three such events. In the end, I carried out over 100 hours of participant observation in these trips over July and August 2019. The summer trips provided an ideal lens to closely examine the quotidian operation of outbound student migration policies, as well as the deep-running tensions between national grand plans, local bureaucratic improvisation, and student migrants’ own desires.

My tripartite model of outbound student migration politics – economic, governmental, and geopolitical – strives to facilitate scholarly dialogue between ISM and diaspora studies. While the burgeoning mobility paradigm emphasizes neoliberalism’s crucial role in promoting the transition from international education to labor immigration in destination countries, this article pushes China to center stage and examines the homeland state’s changing, yet-unabating, interests in regulating and positioning overseas students in both national policies and local implementation.

Author Bio

Jiaqi M. Liu is a PhD candidate at the University of California, San Diego, studying the political sociology of international migration.  Building on multidisciplinary training and professional experiences in sociology, international politics, and law, Jiaqi adopts mixed qualitative methods to explore the crossroads between international migration, diaspora politics, citizenship laws, and transborder governance. His articles have appeared at International Migration Review and Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies and won the 2020 Aristide Zolberg Distinguished Student Scholar Award from the American Sociological Association.


Migrant Children in State/Quasi-state Schools in Urban China: From Access to Quality?

Research Highlighted

Yu, H. (2021) Migrant Children in State/Quasi-state Schools in Urban China: From Access to Quality? London: Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9781003220596


In China, over fourteen million children of compulsory education age are involved in the rural-to-urban migration. Over the past two decades the national and local governments have achieved great progresses in enrolling eighty percent of migrant children in state schools. This situation brings a new question regarding the quality of education: does enrolling in a state school mean that the migrant children can now enjoy equal educational resources and expect to have outcomes equal to the local children? Rooted in rich qualitative data from five Chinese metropolitan cities, this book highlights the changing landscape of urban state school sector under the pressure of recruiting a tremendous number of migrant children and examines the quality of education from different angles. It identifies the demographic changes in many state schools of becoming ‘migrant majority’ and the institutional reformation of ‘interim quasi-state’ schools under a low cost and inferior schooling approach. It also digs into the ‘black box’ of cultural reproduction in school and family processes, revealing both a gloomy side of many migrant children’s academic underachievement as a result of troubled home-school relations and a bright side that social inclusion of migrant children in state school promotes their adaptation to the urban life. The book concludes that migrant children’s experiences in state (and quasi-state) school turn them into a generation of ‘new urban working-class’. This book will be of interest to scholars, students, practitioners and policymakers to better address educational equality for migrants and other marginalised groups.

In China, internal migrants account for the main part of the migrant population. During the last three decades of urbanisation, millions of rural labourers have left their hometowns to work in urban areas. In 2019, there were 135 million rural-to-urban migrant labourers nationally (National Bureau of Statistics 2020) with 14.27 million migrant children of compulsory education age studying in schools (Ministry of Education 2020). In recent years, around 80% of migrant children are enrolled in state schools nationwide. For those migrant children who have enrolled in local state schools, many of them have achieved progresses in their social inclusion and academic performance, yet they still face challenges in terms of equal educational outcome if compared with their local counterparts. This book aims to examine the new question regarding the quality of education that migrant children receive in the urban schooling field: does enrolling in a state school mean that the migrant children can now enjoy equal educational resources and expect to have outcomes equal to the local children?

Putting the overall research question into the specific context of five Chinese metropolitan cities, namely, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan, the empirical analysis in this book focuses on the kinds of schooling experiences that migrant children have after they have enrolled in state (or quasi-state) schools. As global metropolises, the five cities can present acute examples of common problems related to migrant children’s education in metropolitan areas in China. In addition, since Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta region have different histories and differ in terms of socio-cultural, economic and political contexts, they can provide a useful contrast. The total number of participants in the five cities is 126, including: 16 government officers, 25 school leaders (including 19 headteachers, one chairman of the board of directors and 5 department heads), 20 teachers, 34 migrant parents, 17 migrant children, 8 local parents and 6 local children.

To describe each of the eight chapters in more detail:

Chapter 1 presents the research background and context by introducing the issue of Chinese internal migrant children’s schooling. Chapter 2 tries to conceptualise quality of education in a context of migration. It conceptulises three dimensions of educational quality in a context of migration and education, including accessibility, equivalence, responsiveness.

Chapter 3 focuses on the quality of education in state school, specifically the migrant majority state school, which is currently the predominant mainstream schooling channel for migrant children. It concludes with an identification of a ‘sandglass dilemma’ which restrains the improvement of educational quality of migrant majority state schools for migrant children. In Chapters 4&5, the focus shifts to the quality of education in another main schooling channel for migrant children, which is conceptulised an ‘interim quasi-state school system’. Chapter 4 elaborates the formation of three main types of quasi-state schools, including government-purchased private school, government-controlled private school, and senior secondary state school recruiting migrant children in junior secondary stage, respectively. Chapter 5 further examines three characteristics of the ‘interim quasi-state school system’, including belongingness to the state sector, offering quasi-state education, and interim nature. The whole system is treated as an emergency mechanism for solving the migrant children’s schooling problem, rather than as regular schools offering high quality education. While realising the children’s right to education, this system does not guarantee them a “good” education.

Chapters 6 examines the role of parental involvement in shaping the academic performance of migrant children in school. It examines how the intersection of rural origin, migration status and working-class identities shapes the parents’ habitus and their exertion of capital in the urban education field. Chapter 7 examines social inclusion of migrant children in urban schools. It further identifies three aspects of migrant children’s urbanized habitus and gain of cultural capital in the urban field of cultural reproduction, including their manner of speaking, ways of behaving, self-presentation, and their appreciation of extra-curricular hobbies. Empirical findings identify a well-integrated relationship between migrant and local children, which contributes to the production of a generation of ‘new urban citizens’, yet in the meantime reproduces the migrant families’ class status as low-skilled labourers.

Chapter 8 presents the concluding thoughts of this thesis. It highlights the changing landscape of urban state school sector under the pressure of recruiting a tremendous number of migrant children and examines the quality of education from different angles. It identifies the demographic changes in many state schools of becoming ‘migrant majority’ and the institutional reformation of ‘interim quasi-state’ schools under a low cost and inferior schooling approach. It also digs into the ‘black box’ of cultural reproduction in school and family processes, revealing both a gloomy side of many migrant children’s academic underachievement as a result of troubled home-school relations and a bright side that social inclusion of migrant children in state school promotes their adaptation to the urban life. The book concludes that migrant children’s experiences in state (and quasi-state) school turn them into a generation of ‘new urban working-class’.

Author Bio

Dr Hui Yu, South China Normal University, China

Hui Yu (PhD, IOE) is Associate Professor (tenured) in the School of Education at South China Normal University, China. As a Bourdieu-informed sociologist, Dr Yu’s particular research interests include sociology of education with a focus on policy processes and social class equalities in China. His ongoing research projects focus on education of rural-to-urban migrant children and parental involvement in urban China, adopting Bourdieusian theoretical resources.

Email: hui.yu@m.scnu.edu.cn 

ORCiD: orcid.org/0000-0002-9651-502X


The Foreign Bully, the Guest, and the Low-income Knowledge Worker: Performing Multiple Versions of Whiteness in China

Research highlighted:

Lan, S. (2021). The foreign bully, the guest, and the low-income knowledge worker: Performing multiple versions of whiteness in China. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Dr Shanshan Lan, University of Amsterdam

With the rise of China as the world’s second largest economy, more and more white Westerners are moving to China to pursue better job or business opportunities. In addition to the so-called transnational elites, there is an increasing number of middle-stratum white migrants who work as English teachers, self-initiated entrepreneurs, locally hired staff in transnational companies, lecturers in Chinese universities, and artists or creative workers in China’s media and cultural sectors. Unlike the transnational elites who usually have limited social interactions with local Chinese (Yeo and Willis 2005), this new group often depends on professional and social networks with local Chinese to consolidate their business or career opportunities. Scholars have noted the decline of social privileges associated with white skin in many Asian societies (P.C. Lan 2011; Lundström 2014; Maher and Lafferty 2014). The diversification of the white population in China matches the expansion of job markets for “foreigners” from coastal areas to smaller cities in the interior of the country. Due to the recent tightening in immigration controls and the rising tides of popular nationalism in Chinese society, the lived experiences of non-managerial and non-elite white migrants are increasingly marked by considerable tensions between privileges and precariousness (Farrer 2019; S. Lan 2021; Lehmann 2014; Leonard 2019; Stanley 2013).  However, little has been written on how different groups of white migrants make sense of and try to cope with this daily experience of precariousness.

       This paper focuses on two research questions: What are the opportunities and challenges faced by white migrants in different fields of employment and different geographical locations under the evolving nature of multiple Chinese gazes? How do various groups of white migrants engage with, negotiate, or resist the Chinese gazes through quotidian racialized performances? Existing literature on international migrants in China mainly focuses on black Africans in Guangzhou (S. Lan 2017; Bodomo 2012; Haugen 2012). The relative absence of whites in migration studies literature points to the racialization of “migrant” as a category reserved mainly for non-white people (Lundström 2017). This research denaturalizes whiteness as an invisible norm by rethinking it in a context of international labor migration and cross-cultural interaction. The paper attends to social stratification within the white population in China by moving beyond the binary between transnational corporate elites, who are often considered as privileged migrants (Camenisch and Suter 2019; Farrer 2019), and foreign English teachers, who are stigmatized as occupying a lower status within the expatriate community (Leonard 2019; Stanley 2013). Instead, it focuses on a group of middling migrants (Lehman 2014), namely self-initiated migrants who are neither recruited by transnational companies nor by talent schemes of Chinese universities, nor by commercialized brokers (as is the case of many foreign English teachers). I argue that although these white migrants have little control of the multiple and contradictory ways that they are racialized in Chinese society, they still demonstrate a certain degree of agency in manipulating the Chinese gazes for their benefit through strategic performances of different versions of whiteness. In this vein, the paper highlights the situational nature of whiteness, which is mediated by nationality, gender, class, Chinese language skills, and length of stay in China.

Author Bio

Shanshan Lan is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Moving Matters research group. She received her Ph. D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She had worked as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University and Connecticut College in the United States. Before joining the University of Amsterdam, she was a Research Assistant Professor in the David Lam Institute for East-West Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University. Lan is the Principal Investigator of the ERC project “The reconfiguration of whiteness in China: Privileges, precariousness, and racialized performances” (CHINAWHITE, 2019-2024). Funded by the European Research Council, this project examines how the western notion of whiteness is dis-assembled and re-assembled in the new historical context of China’s rise as a global superpower.


Disenchantment revisited: school life in Northwest China

Research Highlighted:

Tong, L. & Zhou, Y. (2021). Disenchantment revisited: school life in Northwest China. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2021.2006149

Typically understood through a universal-statist framework, modern schooling in contemporary China often contributes to the disenchantment of rural, migrant, and ethnic students. High dropout rates, lack of educational infrastructure, low household socioeconomic status (SES), poor academic attainment, and passive withdrawal inside classrooms are common among these groups. Constructed under the modernization framework, schooling is often treated as an instrument for linear social progress. It is anchored on the contested triumphalism that literacy and numeracy pave the foundation of human capital formation and economic development. Yet, for the many of those mentioned above, such an ideology remains disconnected from their daily lives. In many cases, it contradicts their epistemic practices and beliefs altogether.

Previous studies have tended to treat disenchantment as a fixed state, despite the presence of constant changes. Using an ethnographic approach, we focused more on the flow of these students’ daily lives. The questions that perplexed us and remain critically underexplored are: What eventually became of the disenchanted youth? Is disenchantment a state of mind, a period of status, or an enduring character? Are those disenchanted students always disappointed with their school lives?

Based on year-long ethnographic research in a Tibetan-serving secondary school in Northwest China, we provide additional insights on these questions. We combined participant observation with interviews in daily field activities. We examined a school relocation project for a Tibetan-serving community. This school relocation project aims to recruit Tibetan children from underdeveloped regions to receive better secondary education in urban and modern settings. It resembles many issues embodied by contemporary Chinese ethnic schooling: most students are from pastoral herdsman families, they have a low level of parental involvement in a boarding environment, and they have a low level of academic performance.


Our research question stems from an empirical puzzle. It was apparent from our observations that the students were not interested in the academically oriented classes. They admitted that they struggled with learning. They did very poorly on standardized tests. In other words, these Tibetan students are clearly maladjusted to the most salient educational ethos of today’s China: academic-oriented learning. This predicament can be explained on two levels. At the practical level, modern academic learning implies incremental effort, which requires the learner to consolidate prior knowledge and practice regularly. However, these elements are absent at the elementary level for the students we met. Few of them developed any real academic foundation due to the harsh living environment, low household SES, poor educational resources, low parental involvement, etc. Moreover, students were met with additional challenges at the cultural level after the relocation. Language barriers, culturally irrelevant curriculum, and epistemic dissonances disengage them from academic pursuits.

However, spending time in this school also made us realize that the classroom experience should be contextualized within the school’s larger social setting. We agreed with Abbott (2016) that change is the norm in social life. When viewing disenchantment from a processual point of view, it is natural to seek how the disenchantment plays out in social space and social time. To understand the changing nature of schooling, we use the ecological/processual approach. In this approach, schooling, like any social structure, is viewed as being in constant flux. We argue that to treat disenchantment as a fixed state ignores the space-temporal quality of human action. The school’s social process is multiple and momentary in nature and often undermines the seemingly linear educational programming. Under the seemingly rigid school setting emerge social spaces that expand beyond academic lessons, which constantly make and remake social actors. We argue that such moments of making and remaking show the personal agency of the students. We illustrate this point using two instances, that is, blackboard newspaper and physical/artistic activities.

Although we observed passive withdrawal inside the classroom, the scene outside of it was quite different. We observe students engaging in social moments with focus, passion, and enjoyment. Those disenchanted students did—consciously or unconsciously—explore other channels to create a new social space. They appropriated school tasks such as putting up routine blackboard newspapers. They also took advantage of the officially designated ‘free time’ to engage in sports and artistic activities. In those spaces, students continue to interact among themselves and with teachers, where withdrawal and marginalization happen alongside negotiation, appropriation, and participation. While disenchantment anchors the classroom experience of many, it interpenetrates and enmeshes with other aspects of student lives and is interwoven over time. By considering this complex interplay of disenchantment we upend the notion of disenchantment as a singular state.


In our case, students spent three to six years in a relocated community with peers and teachers, where disenchantment, be it at the initial or later stage of studying, often was evident. But at the same time, disenchantment intersected with other aspects of social life. The students we observed quickly shifted their attention and energy toward more appealing subjects. They slipped in content that speaks to their religious and ethnic beliefs despite knowing that their expression of religiosity and ethnic identity is not officially encouraged. Simply put, the schooling experience extends beyond academic learning and involves a significant amount of leisure time, sports, and extracurricular activities.

In several cases, they were stereotyped, challenged, or disciplined. But more often than not, they were sympathized with, acquiesced to, and even encouraged in some instances by teachers and administrators. It is in this sense that this study provides new insights into the studies of disenchanted youth. Globally, previous studies tend to view academic schools as places rife with tension, especially for ethnic students. However, we argue that some school space is actually porous and elastic. Beyond the seeming rigidity of time arrangement and of classroom and behavioral norms, there also existed spaces that were relatively free or spontaneous.

Therefore, by studying the conditioning forces that surrounded disenchanted students, we seek to provide new insights into educational policy research, as well as connect with the literature of social process. Beyond the Chinese setting, this study also provides a lesson to educators who work with minority youth in many developing countries. Today, rural/ethnic students in many countries do face a similar dilemma. Their schooling experiences deserve researchers’ further attention.

Authors’ Bio

Liqin Tong, University of Macau

Liqin Tong (Corresponding Author) is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Macau’s Faculty of Education. Her research interests focus on sociology of education, anthropology of education, and culturally relevant pedagogy. She can be contacted via email: yb87104@connect.um.edu.mo.

Dr Yisu Zhou, University of Macau

Yisu Zhou is an associate professor at the University of Macau’s Faculty of Education. He obtained his doctoral degree from Michigan State University’s College of Education. Yisu’s doctoral work is about the teaching profession (out-of-field teachers) using a large-scale survey from OECD. Yisu’s research interests in education policy span across various topics, including educational finance, teacher education, sociology and economics of education. He has published in American Journal of Education, Journal of Contemporary China, Asia-Pacific Education Researcher, Journal of School Health, Sociological Methods and Research, Social Science Computer Review, etc. He is currently serving on the editorial board of Multicultural Education Review.


Finding a Chulu (Way Out): Rural-origin Chinese Students Studying Abroad in South Korea

Research Highlighted:

Lan, S. (2021). Finding a Chulu (Way Out): Rural-origin Chinese Students Studying Abroad in South Korea. Pacific Affairs, 94(4), 661-681.

Based on multi-sited research in China and South Korea, this paper examines the motivations for rural-origin Chinese students to study abroad in South Korea and how their overseas experiences are mediated by the intersection of internal and international educational hierarchies. Existing literature on transnational student mobility from Asia mainly focuses on students from urban middle-class background, little attention has been paid to students from less advantaged background. Scholars have noted that China’s seemingly meritocratic gaokao (national college entrance exam) policy in reality functions to perpetuate the structural marginalization of rural students in its educational system. This research moves beyond the internal migration paradigm by examining how social inequalities associated with the rural/urban divide get reproduced and re-articulated by the intersection of class, gender, place of origin, and time management at the transnational scale.

Existing literature on Chinese students in South Korea often treat them as a homogeneous group, rather than making distinctions based on class, gender, and place of origin. This research attends to the heterogeneity within the Chinese student population by focusing on a relatively invisible group of students from rural background. In 2018 when this research was conducted, there were 68,184 Chinese students enrolled in universities in South Korea, constituting almost half of the total foreign student population. Although the majority of them are from urban middle-class or lower middle-class backgrounds, there is a small group of rural-origin students who identify themselves as from wage-earning or low-income families. They remain invisible in the Chinese student community for several reasons. First, social stigmatization associated with the rural often makes them hesitant to identify their rural origin. Second, rural students usually do not share the conspicuous consumption behaviors of more affluent Chinese students and are thus marginalized in the social circle of Chinese students. Last but not least, they are usually busy working at multiple part-time jobs to cover their tuition and living expenses. Although most Chinese students in South Korea engage in some type of part-time employment, those from rural background face more pressure to work hard to support themselves due to their family’s lack of financial resources. This research investigates the following questions: What motivates rural students to study in South Korea? How do class, gender, and place of origin mediate their overseas educational experiences and future mobility trajectories?

Scholars have noted that the expansion of China’s higher educational system has become the main engine for the production of a new generation of educated middle-class. Yet they also note that this new educated middle-class is internally stratified due to university ranking in China.This research contributes a transnational dimension to the formation of the educated middle-class by examining social stratifications among overseas Chinese students. Due to the hierarchical ranking of study abroad destinations and the prevalence of a global educational hierarchy, rural-origin graduates from South Korea will most likely occupy the lower stratum of the educated middle-class compared to their urban peers. Tang and Unger further divide the educated middle-class into those who hold jobs “within the system,” i.e. the public sector, and those who work “outside the system”, i.e. the private sector. The two argue that jobs within the system are not only secure (in terms of welfare benefits)  and financially sustainable, but provide privileged access to “within-the-system” resources that may generate significant grey income outside the system. Due to their less privileged educational credentials and rural family background, and lack of localized social networks in big cities, my respondents usually turn to the transnational realm or the private sector for job opportunities. Despite their overseas degrees and transnational experiences, they are still marginalized within the Chinese social system.       

Robertson et al develop a “mobile transitions” framework to examine the intertwinement of youth’s aspirations for transnational mobility and their transition to adulthood. The popularization of overseas education in China means that an increasing number of Chinese youth are transitioning to adulthood during their time studying abroad. However, such mobile transitions are marked by stratifications along the line of class, gender, and place of origin. The marginalization of rural students in China’s educational system has pushed some of them to become new consumers of overseas education. However, the rural/urban divide continues to shape rural students’ study and work experiences in South Korea in important ways. This research finds a notable tension in my rural participants’ narratives of educational mobility. On the one hand, they are highly aware of structural inequalities in both the Chinese and the transnational educational systems; on the other hand, they also embrace the neoliberal ideology of self-responsibility and self-entrepreneurship. While appealing to the desire for transnational mobility among youth from different social backgrounds, China’s liberalization of policy in the self-funded study abroad market also functions to hide structural inequalities in its social and educational system. Although overseas education offers some rural students opportunities to negotiate their structural marginalization in Chinese society, it also reflects the expansion of internal social spatial inequalities to the international realm. The rural/urban divide and the regional scale of their transnational capital conversion have largely pre-determined rural youth’s disadvantaged position in a stratified Chinese society.

Author Bio

Shanshan Lan is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Moving Matters research group. She received her Ph. D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She had worked as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University and Connecticut College in the United States. Before joining the University of Amsterdam, she was a Research Assistant Professor in the David Lam Institute for East-West Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University. Lan is the Principal Investigator of the ERC project “The reconfiguration of whiteness in China: Privileges, precariousness, and racialized performances” (CHINAWHITE, 2019-2024). Funded by the European Research Council, this project examines how the western notion of whiteness is dis-assembled and re-assembled in the new historical context of China’s rise as a global superpower.


The Educational Hopes and Ambitions of Left-Behind Children in Rural China: An Ethnographic Case Study

Research Highlighted:

Hong, Y. (2021). The Educational Hopes and Ambitions of Left-Behind Children in Rural China: An Ethnographic Case Study. Routledge.

Listen to an interview with Yang here, and watch the interview here.

Children who are ‘left behind’ by migrating parents is a growing phenomenon across Asia. Left-behind children is a consequence of China’s rapid urbanization and its peculiar household registration system. The number of this highly disadvantaged young population across China is overwhelming (61 million in 2013). These young people are doubly disadvantaged, first by their poverty and secondly, by the loss of their parents in their day to day life. Research in different national contexts has provided evidence of how growing up as a ‘left-behind child’ can have a profound impact on young people’s development. Large-scale quantitative research has demonstrated well that being ‘left behind’ has an impact on educational attainment as well on measures that explore sense of well-being and character development.

I conducted an ethnographic case study in a rural school with a high proportion of left-behind children in southwest China. Data were collected from 17 left-behind children. I explored in-depth the individual educational experiences of being poor and ‘left behind’ in rural China, and understood how the experiences of young people themselves had shaped their aspirations as well as self identity. Through this deeply qualitative study, first hand insights into the day to day experiences of left-behind children were gained. By living with the students for 4 months; eating, sleeping and spending academic and leisure time together, a rich and detailed understanding of what it meant to be ‘poor’ and ‘left behind’ for the children in this study were possible.

Extending from Bourdieu’s sociological theories, my study offered an original contribution by combining three theoretical/disciplinary perspectives (cultural capital – sociology, rational action – behavioural economics, and self-efficacy – psychology) in a new and useful way to conceptualize aspirations for higher education in the context of rural China. The three different disciplinary perspectives are often seen, at the surface level at least, not especially compatible; this study however integrated them as well as transferring these Western theories to an Eastern context and demonstrating cultural nuances that these theories do not capture when applying in the West.

Key findings

Results of the study were organized as two chapters (Five and Six) in the book to reflect the different educational attitudes and aspirations of left-behind children under study. “University Non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’” referred to those who did not intend to receive university education and those who had difficulty making decisions. “University aspirers’ were those who explicitly expressed that going to university was what they definitely wanted to do. Findings indicated that whilst educational aspirations were embedded in left-behind children’s disadvantaged social background, they were also shaped by the consequences of being ‘left-behind’.

University non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’, and university aspirers were primarily differentiated by their differential attitudes towards higher education as well as schooling in general. Comparing to university aspirers who demonstrated a strong faith in meritocracy, university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ shared a strong desire to enter, what they saw as, the real social world instead. Their beliefs and plans with respect to how to achieve their developed future goals were very individualized because they had very personal and varied understandings of the social world as well as how they saw themselves in terms of personal advantages and weaknesses.

Family played a significant role in shaping student aspirations. What was distinct for university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ was that educational aspirations appeared to be linked strongly with loose family connections as well as authoritarian family members. But for university aspirers, parents’ expectations, their concern and encouragement became a strong motive to learning. However, despite this, these young people expressed an extreme sense of isolation as even though having developed an aspiration for university, there was no extra parental involvement, advice or support provided as guidance when making future plans.

Although the school provided no guidance and very little support with respect to future preparation, university aspirers were able to gain support from their peers as well as their teachers, while university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ were left alone to make decisions only with limited source of information circulated among classmates and friends.

‘Left-behind-ness’ was seen by all these young people as being compensated by a clearly improved family financial situation and their opportunity to stay in education. However, university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ felt they could have more positive personal changes if they were not ‘left behind’. University aspirers, while some also acknowledged they could have a better school performance and a closer relationship with parents, being ‘left behind’ was viewed by some as beneficial for securing independence and freedom to decide the future. Overall though, university aspirers largely expressed a strong sense of loneliness and in particular, a sense of making the best of life’s circumstances with bravado. 


This book employed the concepts of cultural capital, habitus, social capital and emotional capital to investigate the role of family in shaping aspirations. I casted some doubts on Bourdieu’s deterministic view that the value families place on their children’s education is the result of class-based dispositions and habitus. Where Bourdieu is useful is in the ways that poverty can impact on families and in the resources families have to support their children, the results of this study led me to suggest that the idea of habitus should be re-considered specifically to different cultural contexts – in this case, in the Chinese society. Whilst family cultural capital supports a child’s education with knowledge, skills and abilities, emotional capital invested by parental encouragement, support, confidence and interest cultivates a strong sense of belonging, assurance and security for a child, which arguably is significant in promoting self-confidence and self-esteem or encouraging a sense of self-efficacy and autonomy. I also suggest it is being emotionally ‘left behind’ that ultimately is the specific disadvantage of Chinese left-behind children, as opposed to the disadvantages associated with poverty alone. 

Author Bio

Dr Yang Hong is currently a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an, China. She specializes in the area of social justice, focusing on issues of poverty, gender, education and identity. She can be contacted via email: ruiyinghong2017@163.com.


“Living with Solitude”: Narrative of a female college student from rural China

Research Highlighted

Dr Yumei Li, Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute, China

Li, Y., Zou, Y. & White, C.(2021). “Living with solitude”: Narrative of a female college student from rural China. British Journal of Sociology of Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2021.1962244.  

While rural–urban differences are the most important predictor for the level of social inequality, higher education in China has long been considered a levelling playground for rural people to climb the social ladder. However, rural students’ backgrounds having a detrimental effect on their college experiences. In view of the constraints rural students are reported to have on college campus and the possible transformations they may achieve, I conducted this narrative study to explore in depth the experience of one female rural student. Adopting the thinking tools of habitus and reflexivity, the paper offers a lens into her own narrative in China’s social and educational milieu and to gain a better understanding of the detailed approaches through which she navigates the urban college. This study focuses on two major research questions: What constraints has a female rural college student experienced? How did she mediate those constraints?

I used my personal network to recruit participants in order to guarantee the solidarity and rapport between the potential participants and the researcher. Ying (pseudonym) was one of the participants who came from rural poor areas in China and were engineering seniors at a university located in a metropolitan area in northern China. She came from a village located in a nationally designated poor county in China. I conducted open-ended, in-depth interviews with her in Chinese and translated them into English when quoting in the paper.

To analyze the data, this paper used narrative as the method and form of representation. It first delineated Ying’s learning trajectory from her childhood to college and presented a full map of her social mobility with her family, schools and society placed in the background. The findings highlighted the restraints and gains Ying had experienced and how she constructed her own narrative of conflicts and agency in China’s higher education.

Key findings

The first finding was how the participant experienced pride and inferiority at the same time due to her appearance and her excellence in learning. She was very self-conscious of her appearance since “a young girl ran after [her] and called [her] a ‘fatty’” in her childhood years. On the other hand, Ying’s excellence at learning since childhood gave her a sense of “pride near arrogance”. The mixed feelings of pride and inferiority largely led to her earlier failure to blend into the campus culture. When the researcher asked her about how she felt at the time of the interview, she claimed that she “had grown out of that sentiment of caring much about outer appearance”. In addition, she added that she was going on a diet at the time and claimed that society always placed too much criteria on women.

The second finding was how the rural-urban educational disparity was affecting this rural college student. The narrow scope of knowledge posed a great challenge for her as a student from rural China and resulted in her lack of confidence. She was feeling inferior at the beginning but was trying to broaden her knowledge scopes in the university. She was also taking a critical stance towards the view about talent. In the college, she spent much time in the university library and read books she had no access to in her previous school years. Reading and learning in college broadened her mind and enabled her to critically examine her own strengths and those of others. She elaborated on her change of feelings:

I was filled with inferiority, complaint and dissatisfaction at the beginning concerning the urban-rural divide and my narrow scope of knowledge. However, currently I believe a better way for me is first to realize the gap and also learn from my friends who come from affluent backgrounds.


While she was not as versatile as students who received training in music, dance or arts in their childhood, Ying was starting to appreciate her own experiences with crops and farm work.

The third finding was how Ying was seeking for financial self-reliance in order to walk away from the stigma of rural poverty. She did not apply for scholarships the university set up for needy students. She believed these were for students who were “really in dire need”. She mentioned her high school experience:

When I was a high school junior, my teacher advised me to apply for scholarships for students from impoverished families. She might have noticed my unstylish dress. When my father learnt about it, he declined the offer, insisting we did not need it as long as he could support me financially. My father is a very hardworking man with high self-esteem. I am so proud of him.


The last major finding was how she thought about the meaning of college life to her. In her senior year, she was preparing for the graduate entrance exam to a very prestigious university in eastern China but did not meet the benchmark score. When the clock of college life for her was ticking its last days, Ying was preparing for her graduation, continuing her tutoring job while doing another internship at a marine engineering company. She had not found a job yet. She planned to take the graduate entrance exam for a second time in the coming year. Facing all these uncertainties, Ying revealed that she had a “sense of anxiety, powerlessness, and failure” but still tried to calm down and made the best of her final time in the college.


This paper employed the concepts of both habitus and reflexivity to interpret the research participant Ying’s educational experience. As a female student from rural China, Ying has felt the constraints placed upon her by the intersection of gender and rurality, experienced the sense of inferiority as a consequence of lacking financial and cultural capital desired by the urban campus and society. While higher education has confronted her with all those constraints, it also served as a venue for her to examine these factors and to search for her own self-worth and self-improvement through internal conversations. With the unfolding of her story, this paper illustrated her reflexivity when she was exposed to a world larger than herself and experienced the dislocation of habitus. Reflexivity is also constantly exhibited as a regular practice for her self-cultivation. While Ying’s story underscores the importance of agency showcased in reflexivity, her struggle and “feeling of powerlessness” reveals the fact that agency is socially embedded and relational. Meanwhile, habitus transformation also comes in tandem with resistance and acquiescence through reflexivity. It might also be reproduced without the agent being aware of it. The research suggests the important responsibility of our society and our education to challenge the unequal social structures and to level the playground by providing more resources to rural areas.

Author Bio

Yumei Li is currently an assistant professor in Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute in China. Her research centers on international education, language, culture, and social justice in education.  


Why students leave Chinese elite universities for doctoral studies abroad: Institutional habitus, career script and college graduates’ decision to study abroad

Research Highlighted:

Li, L., Shen, W., & Xie, A. (2021). Why students leave Chinese elite universities for doctoral studies abroad: Institutional habitus, career script and college graduates’ decision to study abroad. International Journal of Educational Development, 84, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedudev.2021.102408

Despite the rise of China’s elite universities in global rankings, the number of Chinese students going abroad to pursue doctorate degrees is still large. In order to understand the reasons behind, we launched a major project since 2018 and have conducted interviews with more than 100 participants in several China’s elite universities. This article reports a part of the findings.

China is forging ahead in its goal to achieve a world-class higher education system and to move from the periphery to the centre of the global knowledge network (Altbach, 2009). To this end, the Chinese government has exerted much effort over the past two decades in reversing its long-term brain drain into a brain gain (Lee, 2013). However, although the world rankings of Chinese universities are improving, the proportion of students in elite universities who choose to study abroad has not dropped significantly. For example, the proportion of C9 league universities undergraduates going abroad for postgraduate studies kept relatively stable, between 22.56% and 25.88% from 2013 to 2019 (Shen et al,2021).

Previous studies suggest a series of pull–push factors at the systematic and individual levels affecting the motivation and outbound mobility of Chinese students. The factors at the institutional level, however, were rarely examined. The changing landscape of Chinese higher education has seldomly been considered either. In this study, we reported the findings of the qualitative interviews with 31 graduates from the chemistry department of Peking University between April and December 2018. The department has been ranked as the best one in its field in China and the 14th best chemistry department in the 2018 QS World University Subject Rankings. Among the 31 graduates we interviewed, 12 students chose to study abroad while the rest 19 students chose to stay in China for their doctorate. We aim to understand those institutional factors behind their decisions to study abroad or not. The concepts of institutional habitus and career scripts provide with us theoretical insights.

Our data suggests that in our case university, there is an institutional habitus because of the dynamic between policy and individuals. The decision to study abroad is not only motivated by the will of students but is also greatly shaped by the institutional habitus of ‘going abroad is excellent’. Furthermore, going abroad has become part of the career script of our interviewees as a result of translating government policies into universities’ entry criteria for new faculty members. At the cognitive level, oversea degrees and working experiences are considered to be relevant to more original work and an extension of research breath. At the community level, it was perceived to be helpful in improving English writing skills, publishing on top international journals, achieving an extensive academic social network. At the organizational level, it was understood a symbolic capital to getting into elite universities which usually prioritize returnees with oversea degree and substantial working experience in top university abroad. If a chemistry student wants to be a faculty member of a research university, then s/he must act in accordance with the career scripts by going abroad. Overseas degrees are still a hard currency in the academic labor market.

This study contributes to the literature in several ways. Firstly, the main body of literature highlights students’ motivations for going abroad as a rational choice to maximise their returns upon returning. We offer a sociological analysis by examining the influence of culture on the decisions of students through institutional habitus. Students may be economical, but their decisions are heavily shaped by the institutional habitus of their universities. Secondly, although previous studies have focused on system-level factors as gaps in teaching and research quality and salary for faculty between peripheral countries and central countries, or individual-level factors as economic pursuit of returns, this study focuses on institutional-level factors and underscores the importance of cross-unit analysis by highlighting the role of institutions in translating system-level policies into student preferences. National policies have conferred a special symbolic and political capital to returnees and subsequently to overseas students in general (Xiang & Shen, 2009), thereby forming the institutional habitus ‘excellent students should go abroad’. As a result, many students decide to study abroad even before they have developed a good understanding of the domestic and international academic labor market.

The phenomenon of “the study-abroad fever of Chinese students” has attracted the attention of many scholars (Zha, 2015), but at the same time, in recent years, the emergence of anti-globalization trends and the deterioration of China’s international relations have also raised concerns that “the numbers of Chinese students going abroad to several of the key receiving countries will slow or even decline”(Altbach, 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for Chinese students to go abroad and has an impact on the decision-making of some Chinese students to go abroad. It daunts students’ confidence in international traveling. The rising anti-Asian sentiment and increasing political tensions with China may also cause more tightened visa regulations for students from China where is the largest sending area of international students. This article provides a convincing theoretical explanation from the perspectives of institutional habitus and career script for the mobility choice of college graduates from elite Chinese universities in the past 20 years. In the short term, the habitus of going abroad does not seem to change, but how the epidemic, international competition, and the further improvement of the status of Chinese universities will affect students’ choice of going abroad remains to be seen and studied.


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Lee, C. S. (2013). China’s Leap Forward from ‘Brain Drain’to ‘Brain Gain’: Its International Student Recruitment Strategy and the Decision-Making Process of Foreign Students. Contemporary Chinese Studies, 14(2), 321-361.

Xiang B, Shen W (2009). International student migration and social stratification in China. International Journal of Educational Development, 29(5): 513-522

Shen Wenqin, Xie Xinyi, Guo Errong (2021). The changing trend of the academic labor market and the challenge of doctoral education in China. Under review

Zha, Qiang (2015). Study Abroad Fever among Chinese Students. International Higher Education, (69), 15-17.

Researchers’ Bio

Wenqin Shen (Corresponding Author) is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at Peking University. He mainly studies the higher education system from the perspectives of history and science studies (Sociology of Science, Philosophy of Science, etc). He authored and co-authored publications focused on transnational history of idea and practice of liberal Education (China, the UK and the US), international academic mobility (especially the mobility of doctoral students and postdocs) and doctoral career trajectories. He can be contacted via email: shenwenqin@pku.edu.cn

Liping Li (First author) is a lecturer at Capital Normal University and a doctoral student at the School of Education of Peking University. Her main research fields are teacher education, international mobility of university students, and doctoral career trajectories.

Dr. Ailei Xie is Associate Professor and Director of the Bay Area Education Policy Institute for Social Development at Guangzhou University. His main area of research is on social mobility and higher education, and parenting style and anxiety in China.


Virtue Signaling: Problematizing Creative Labor Within Knowledge Socialism

Dr Benjamin Green, Beijing Normal University, China

Research Highlighted:

Green, B. (2021). Virtue Signaling: Problematizing Creative Labor Within Knowledge Socialism. Postdigital Science and Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-021-00231-x

Beginning in 2018, Beijing Normal University (BNU) Distinguished Professor Michael Peters began a collaborative project that would see a decades-in-the-making theory of cognitive political economy – knowledge socialism – transformed into a philosophy of praxis based on commons-based peer-production (CBPP), collective intelligence, and creative labor. My research identifies and problematizes the virtue signaling of creative academic labor within knowledge socialism as a critical flaw which may serve to further proletarianize and exploit upstart scholars enlisted within this experimental process of teaching, writing, and publishing. Moreover, this research outlines a class of prosocial academic entrepreneur within China higher education (HE) whose commitment to the collective common good is measured by their ability to ensure a professional livelihood. Knowledge socialism represents an attempt by various scholars in the field of philosophy of education to foment a radically open political economy of non-rivalrous knowledge production/consumption that counters the neoliberal paradigm of knowledge capitalism. Specifically, knowledge socialism, as a ‘radically-open’ political economy of knowledge, entails the desire to engender within the scientific community a form of collegiality, which in the vein of Ivan Illich, unlocks the emancipatory potential of collective human thought for the public good. From a Marxist standpoint, the concept of knowledge cultures was developed to represent inclusive communities of inquiry whose creative academic labor constitutes the engine which drives knowledge socialism. Through co(labor)ative writing, editing, and publishing efforts, knowledge socialism aims to foreground knowledge within a sociality which challenges the problematic norms, values and practices of the ‘lone individual scholar’ and the institutions under which it was created. While this theory has been utilized in the past to create co-authored edited volumes, open access research articles, as well as open access online forums and journals, this was the first time that this theory would be tested within a HE classroom setting, consisting wholly of graduate students rather than well-established journal editors, and professors in the field of philosophy of education.

Thus, began the experiment of knowledge socialism at BNU’s Faculty of Education, wherein over the course of several years, the pedagogy of knowledge socialism was developed alongside more practical productive facets towards an alternative political economy of unfettered knowledge. Specifically, throughout this experiment at BNU, several well-met research articles have been published within the auspices of knowledge socialism. For example:

Peters, M. A., Hollings, S., Zhang, M., Quainoo, E. A., Wang, H., Huang, Y., … Green, B. (2021). The changing map of international student mobility. ACCESS: Contemporary Issues in Education, 41(1), 7–28. https://doi.org/10.46786/ac21.7444

Peters, M. A., Oladele, O. M., Green, B., Samilo, A., Lv, H., Amina, L., … Tesar, M. (2020). Education in and for the Belt and Road Initiative. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 52(10), 1040–1063. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2020.1718828   

Peters, M. A., Wang, H., Ogunniran, M. O., Huang, Y., Green, B., Chunga, J. O., … Hayes, S. (2020). China’s Internationalized Higher Education During Covid-19: Collective Student Autoethnography. Postdigital Science and Education, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00128-1

It is important to note that these articles were guided by Professor Michael Peters, but overwhelmingly drafted, written, and edited by graduate students (both international and Chinese) from the Faculty of Education. To be sure, the publication of these articles showed quite clearly the positive productive capacity of knowledge socialism. Moreover, these articles provided rich insights into topics like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), HE Internationalization, student mobility, and pandemic education. However, while this collaborative process brought invaluable insights to both those involved as well as readers interested in the aforementioned topics, questions began to arise as to whether knowledge socialism (in its present form) might represent a viable alternative to knowledge capitalism.

With this in mind, my research article outlines several core productive elements of knowledge socialism as required to create a ‘commons’ which contributes to both the public good and the livelihood of commoners. These elements are creative labor, collective intelligence, and commons-based-peer-production (CBPP). Much of the research concerning collective intelligence and CBPP emphasizes the inherent virtuous character of those volunteering their creative labor to collaborative projects. Specifically, many scholars cite Wikipedia as a model of CBPP based in the virtuous volunteerism of cognitive laborers. It is clear why such a model of collective knowledge production might be used to theorize a way out of our contemporary ‘tragedy of the knowledge commons’, wherein knowledge is produced, extracted, and commodified by publishing regimes within institutionalized HE. However, throughout the course of my research it became clear that rather than developing a substantive method of valuation for the creative academic laboring of those contributing to these research projects, knowledge socialism was promoting a form of ‘virtue signaling’ which expected and relied on voluntary, de-valorized ‘virtuous’ labor contributions to the commons. In this way, rather than acknowledge the increasing precarity of contemporary scholars within the academy, knowledge socialism was positioning these students within a mythical, carefree academic class. As a lead on many of these projects, I fielded message after message from students worried about their academic futures, outlining their desire to contribute, while struggling with the idea that their collective efforts would fall outside of the first, second, or third author metrics required to graduate. Throughout the entire process, from enlistment in the project to final publication, these students were overwhelmingly concerned about order of authorship for the purpose of grant funding, faculty positions, scholarships and graduation. Thusly, it became increasingly clear that those who contributed to these research projects represented a class of ‘prosocial academic entrepreneur’ who wished to contribute to the common good while also securing their livelihood in the process. This point also provides further credence to the understanding that students of HE in China, while inhabiting what Rui Yang describes as a Confucian political climate geared towards collective societal development, also inhabit the same performativity requirements of neoliberal institutionalized HE. As a result of this research, those wishing to enlist the creative academic labor of students within China HE, must understand the performativity requirements and inherent precarity of these scholars as they seek to promote an economy of knowledge that both valorizes and supports those laboring towards a revolutionary transition to knowledge socialism.

Researcher Bio

Dr. Benjamin Green is a recent graduate (June 2021) of Beijing Normal University, Faculty of Education, and current Zhi-Xing US-China Leadership Fellow. His recent works have focused on China HE, US-China relations, global governance, digital nationalism, critical cosmopolitanism, and Chinese Internationalism as a contested project of alternative modernity. He can be contacted via email: benbo83@gmail.com, Weixin: benbo83.


The Children of China’s Great Migration

Rachel Murphy (2020) The Children of China’s Great Migration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Listen to a podcast and watch a video where Rachel speaks about this book.

The Children of China’s Great Migration addresses the phenomenon of children in rural China being separated from their parents because of labour migration. In the 2010s the number of rural Chinese children with at least one parent who had migrated without them exceeded 61 million, equivalent to the population of Great Britain. Nearly half these children had two migrant parents, while the proportions with a migrant father and a migrant mother were approximately one third and 17 per cent respectively. Although the separation of rural families because of labour migration is portrayed in China’s public official and media discourse as a side-effect of development and urbanization, such family separation is integral to rather than incidental to its national strategy of rapid capital accumulation: urban employers and municipal governments fail to pay migrants a family wage or to provide them and their families with access to public services. Instead, most migrants’ children are fed, housed, educated and cared for in the countryside, which depresses employers’ and municipalities’ costs in competitive globalising markets. This book documents how successive generations of individuals with rural origins become trapped in a daily struggle for survival and unreachable dreams, obscuring the inequalities that compel them to ceaseless toil and sacrifice. It especially reveals that children bear the emotional toll.

Drawing on my interviews with 109 children (with a median age of 12 years) from rural schools in two of China’s eastern interior provinces and matching interviews with their caregivers, the book brings children’s voices into the conversation about national strategies for capital accumulation. It focuses on the children’s experiences of the daily routines of care in their families and their daily routines in and around schools when their parents have migrated without them, these being the routines through which family and national strategies for capital accumulation cohere. Through these routines, children are subjected to their families’ and schools’ efforts to inculcate in them a sense of an intergenerational debt that they need to repay through diligence in study and good behaviour. The book chronicles different children’s experiences of these efforts by their age (primary school age or teenage years), gender, academic performance, and place of residence, by their families’ socio-economic circumstances and by who in their family has migrated – both parents, only the father, or only the mother. It also offers a longitudinal perspective on a subset of these children’s experiences, following twenty-five of them and their families over five years (2010-2015), revealing the strains of both parent-child separation and study pressures on the evolution of parent-child relationships and the children’s sentiments and aspirations. 

The stories of these children and their families show how in the early to mid-2010s, imperatives to work, sacrifice, and take responsibility for one’s own success or failure in life were harnessed and animated by and though multi-scalar social, economic and political processes. Specifically, economic production regimes and families’ social reproduction arrangements blended imperceptibly with individuals’ understandings of cherished values around family, gender, motherhood, fatherhood, filial piety, and morality. Pathways to recognition for individuals both within and beyond their families melded such that failure at school, in the labour market or in the marriage market was not just a personal failure but failure as a child, parent or spouse. An emphasis on children’s voices and experiences contributes to a wider social scientific enterprise of rendering visible the mundane material and social practices and power relations through which people order their lives. It reveals the institutionalised inequalities that compel people of all ages to relentless toil and sacrifice, while imperilling children’s access to the material and affective security so essential for their flourishing.

The book invokes a conceptual framework of ‘multi-local family striving teams’, which combines and extends theoretical insights derived from global literatures on (1) co-resident families’ positioning of children as ‘sites of capital accumulation’ and concomitant efforts to invest in their education; (2) the gendered and intergenerational reconfigurations of families through their migration strategies; and (3) the problematization of children’s agency including its relational and contradictory dimensions. The children learned through the aspirations, discipline, permissions, affection and reproach of adults that other people’s happiness depended on their actions, giving substance to their agency.  Simultaneously gendered and intergenerational norms affected the children’s expectations of and relationships with their mothers, fathers and grandparents. For instance, even as a parent-child work-study bargain gave primary school children a way to deal with the daily pain of missing their parents, if their grades had fallen by the time they reached the junior high stage of their education, their resentment against their migrant parents could be intense.  Meanwhile, resentment against migrant mothers could be the most pronounced because mothers were culturally expected to co-reside with their children.

The book additionally examines left behind children’s experiences of cities, showing that boundaries between ‘left behind children’ and ‘migrant children’ are often blurred. Many rural children who visited their migrant parents in the cities during the two-month summer holidays found themselves locked in a small room for hours at a time with a television and homework while their parents worked. The children seldom saw much of the cities. The implications of migrant parents’ deprived circumstances for their children’s summer visits can be extrapolated from findings in Western countries, namely, that school holidays exacerbate class-based educational inequalities because children whose parents have few resources miss out on the enrichment activities and interactions that middle-class children enjoy. The experiences of the children of migrants in China highlight a need for: dedicated holiday activities, greater flexibility in migrants’ employment conditions such that parents can spend time with their children, and approaches to development that enable families to meet their children’s needs for both the material and affective dimensions of care that are so essential for human flourishing.

The research findings draw attention to a need to incorporate children’s voices into policymaking both in China and globally. Children’s voices highlight the harms of processes that separate social reproduction from production and underpin widening socio-economic inequalities. Their voices also illuminate the failings of an education system that is instrumentally oriented towards equipping children to demonstrate their worth in competition rather than nurturing their potential and love of learning. Indeed, the education system – with its lack of plural viable routes for learning – is such that millions of rural children become alienated, written off and destroyed. These voices of children, with their intuitive emphasis on play, human interdependency and affection, if heard, could offer inspiration for alternative values on which to order society.

Listen to a podcast and watch a video where Rachel speaks about this book.

Author Bio:

Rachel Murphy is Professor of Chinese Development and Society at the University of Oxford. She obtained her PhD in Sociology from the University of Cambridge in 1999. The book project reported here was supported by a British Academy Mid-Career Award. Rachel’s recent publications appear in China Quarterly, Population Space and Place, Development and Change, and Population and Development Review and an article on education and repertoires of care in migrant families in rural China is forthcoming in Comparative Education Review. She is President of the British Association for Chinese Studies.


Student Mobility Choices in Transnational Education: Impact of Macro- , Meso- and Micro- Level Factors

Research Highlighted

Li, X., Haupt, J., & Lee, J. (2021). Student mobility choices in transnational education: Impact of macro- , meso- and micro- level factors. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360080X.2021.1905496

Xiaojie Li, University of Arizona, USA

From Program Assessment to Research Study

The idea of this study was originated from the program assessment work that my colleagues and I have been doing on University of Arizona (UA)’s transnational education (TNE) programs. Students in these programs receive two degrees, one from UA and one from the partner university. For undergraduate students, they can choose to complete all four years of study in their home country, while having the opportunity to physically study at UA for up to two years. Over the past years, our research team surveyed student mobility plans by asking where they intended to complete their studies, pursue a graduate degree, and find a job in both short and long term. We found that students’ mobility plans greatly varied among different partner universities. We began to realize that student mobility is likely related to the institutional and national contexts of the partner university. In order to understand whether/how the contexts matter, we conducted in-depth interviews with students in one of our oldest programs, in which UA collaborates with Ocean University of China (OUC), a Project 985 university[i], and offers a dual bachelor degree in law. In this study, we incorporated 167 survey responses and 13 interviews.

The Three-Level Contextual Framework

We adopted the three-level contextual framework from Haas & Hadjar (2020). Based on a review of the studies on higher education student trajectories, these authors found that student trajectories were often analyzed through the macro-, meso- and/or micro-level predictors. Macro-level factors are those related to national higher education structures and the larger social environment, such as the labor market situation. Meso-level factors mainly refer to the organizational context of higher education institutions, and the micro-level factors are those vary at the individual level, such as demographic attributes. Factors at each level are able to influence student trajectories independent of other factors, and factors within each level and across levels interact simultaneously to influence student trajectories through higher education. Guided by the framework, we examined student mobility choices at four transitional points: (a) initially when they choose to enroll in a TNE program, (b) during their program when they choose to study abroad or stay local to complete the program, (c) near graduation when they choose to apply for graduate school, and (d) near graduation or completion of graduate studies when they seek employment.

Key Findings: The Macro- and Meso-Level Contexts Matter

The macro-level context of the local university admission policies played a significant role in shaping student choice to enroll in the TNE program. For most students, they were aiming to go to a prestigious Chinese university instead of actively seeking international education opportunities. In the end, they perceived the dual degree program as an alternative path to attend a Project 985 university when they obtained a gaokao[ii] score that was not high enough for regular programs at a university at the same level.

A majority (58%) of the students intended to complete their degree in China, and student mobility at this stage was impeded by the meso-level factors (i.e., program structures). The first two years’ English education in the program turned out to be inadequate for some students to achieve the required TOEFL score. Also, studying at UA would hinder their preparation for kaoyan[iii].

In terms of pursuing a graduate degree, students showed a stronger interest in international education (64%). Macro-level factors, baoyan policy[iv] and different labor market situations in China and abroad, facilitated to retain students in China. At the meso level, on the contrary, the TNE program better prepared students to study abroad for graduate education through English medium teaching and an admission agreement with graduate law programs at UA. In addition, the program put students who needed to take kaoyan at a disadvantage.

Lastly, the majority (65%) envisioned their future in China in the short term, and even more students (76%) in the long term. Labor market at the macro level is a primary factor that made students who planned to attend graduate school overseas to intend to return. It would be difficult to find a job abroad despite an interest in doing so.

Implication: TNE’s Dual Role

The main argument we made in this study is that TNE needs to fulfil a dual role in facilitating mobility and supporting immobile students. As most students indicated an interest in pursuing a graduate degree in the US, our findings generally support previous studies that TNE can function as a stepping stone for physical mobility. However, we also found that the program structure restrained student intentions to study abroad during the program. To address this, TNE program could strengthen English language teaching in the first and second year to better prepare students to enter an English-only academic environment. Also, short-term study abroad could expose students to the host country in order to make more informed choices about graduate school.

Meanwhile, given that TNE programs are designed to provide students with access to a foreign education without mobility, they could better support students who plan to attend local graduate schools and apply their TNE to local contexts. This is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic when international mobility is not always available or safe. For TNE in China, specific approaches may include mitigating the course load in the semester when kaoyan takes place and expanding the availability of graduate-level TNE, so that students do not have to choose between a local or international graduate school. Also, TNE program may intentionally connect students with local employers who value their TNE experiences.

Author Bio

Xiaojie Li is a PhD candidate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. She is also a graduate associate assessing the UArizona’s transnational programs and international student experiences. Xiaojie can be contacted via xiaojieli@email.arizona.edu or Twitter @xiaojieli6.

[i] Project 985 university: The goal of Project 985 is to found world-class universities. It includes less than 40 universities, which are usually seen as the most prestigious universities in China.

[ii] Gaokao: National College Entrance Examination

[iii] Kaoyan: Unified National Graduate Entrance Examination

[iv] Baoyan policy: a small portion of undergraduates from some universities can be referred to a master’s program in China without kaoyan, under the exam-free referral policy.


Wasted talents? China’s higher education reforms experienced through its visiting scholars abroad

Research Highlighted:

McKeown, J. S. (2021). Wasted talents? China’s higher education reforms experienced through its visiting scholars abroad. Journal of Contemporary China. https://doi.org/10.1080/10670564.2021.1884961


China’s post-1978 modernization plans include an internationally competitive higher education system. Central to this effort are researchers and professors capable of advancing China’s technological capabilities and educating its ambitious, globally-minded youth. National funding for scholars going abroad was designed to infuse the nation with sophisticated knowledge and to improve university quality. Research on 131 Chinese scholars who spent significant time abroad, mostly in the United States, shows little evidence that these funded experiences abroad were used deliberately to improve Chinese universities. Results show that policies supporting scholarly exchange have not produced successful internationalization efforts on Chinese campuses. Scholars in STEM fields and those receiving national funding indicated significantly higher research focus and productivity, however did not indicate putting it to use at their home institutions.


For years, visiting scholars from China to the US and other western countries were typically considered academic research partners collaborating on mutually beneficial international exchange. However, Chinese visiting scholars have recently come under intense scrutiny, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Hopes of a benign economic win-win scenario between China and more advanced economic powers (particularly with the United States) now seem outdated and naïve. Despite this new attention, little is known or been researched about who these individuals are, now numbering over 45,000 annually in the United States alone, and what experiences they have had. This article seeks to fill the gap in knowledge and contribute to a more complete understanding of what is a complex and enduring relationship between Chinese and other academic communities abroad.

China’s professors, like its students, are highly mobile. It is in this aspect of Chinese university development that this article is situated. The author surveyed 131 recent Chinese visiting scholars, defined as someone on a non-immigrant visa engaged in academic activities and not enrolled as a student. These visiting scholars had spent significant time abroad at foreign institutions, mostly in the United States and other English-speaking countries. Their motivations, funding sources, goals, and experiences abroad, as well as their careers after returning to China, were examined within the context of the growth and competitive aspirations of China’s university sector, within its economic and strategic aspirations overall, in the 21st century. Their anonymous responses reflect a nuanced understanding of their roles in the bigger picture of international academic research cooperation; however, they also reflect an under-utilization of their experiences and skills once back in China. Mostly they show appreciation for the personal and professional benefits resulting from their lengthy experiences overseas, not strategic ones of vital importance to the nation overall or its growing university sector.

Results from this study show comparatively little evidence that visiting scholars play an important role in the internationalization process of their home institutions after returning to China. Lack of formal avenues to put into practice new-found international experience, such as leading new projects or committees, job promotions, or contributing to their home universities’ administrative structures, were typically reported.

In addition, important and statistically significant differences were observed based on the source of funding for the experience and the scholar’s academic discipline that may contribute to understanding the growing scrutiny of, and at times suspicion towards, Chinese scholars abroad. Heightened tensions, changes in academic visa policies, and calls to restrict what had previously been a welcoming and open international academic exchange between China and the West have occurred recently. Specifically, the findings show that those scholars receiving Chinese national government funding (MOE) and those in the STEM fields reported significantly greater focus on their research agendas, less cultural interaction while abroad, and more joint research outcomes with international collaborators. While some of these findings might be expected, they have not been documented and analyzed sufficiently. Furthermore, the findings can, when taken in context of the overall study, help explain potential sources of misunderstanding and suspicion that threaten this important international academic collaboration.

The main reasons Chinese scholars cited for going abroad suggest that they do not see themselves as part of a top-down strategic project of high national priority in which they must participate. Nor do they indicate that they were mentored to see themselves as such. Rather, the findings show that personal motivations reflecting real career interests and desire for language and cultural gain were strongest. Therefore, the broad and long-standing ambitions of the Chinese state to advance its technological and economic power may be understood as matters of articulated national policy and official rhetoric, however the execution of specific policies and implementation at the local and institutional level seem quite different. While the state may articulate its priorities of making Chinese universities more world-class and improving faculty teaching quality, such national goals were not cited as relatively important reasons for having this experience for these visiting scholars, making the purpose of the funding questionable and adding to the evidence that national policy and local / institutional execution in China are not aligned.

These results suggest overall that both the pre-departure motivations and the post-experience expectations on visiting scholars by their institutions or the state were minimal. Far from expecting clear and prioritized objectives related to helping their institutions modernize and internationalize, or to improve teaching performance or grow a research network abroad, these Chinese scholars seemed primarily motivated to advance their own research agendas for their own professional and individual reasons. Rather than being rewarded with job promotions or cash awards upon return, instead these scholars seemed to derive a sense of reward from the intrinsic value of the time abroad, to gain new knowledge and perspectives, and to develop new interests and skills. These are noteworthy and altogether expected outcomes of scholarly engagement abroad, and in all respects embody the spirit of international educational exchange. Yet, that these experiences are occurring within high-level Chinese national policy priority and under increasingly suspicious host country scrutiny makes the lack of strategic fulfillment particularly important to observe. It seems reasonable to conclude that there may be considerable misunderstanding of these scholars’ actions, misalignment with the Chinese policies that brought them abroad, and a misguided suspicion placed on them by some host country authorities.

Taken as a whole, the Chinese visiting scholars’ motivations for undertaking their extended time abroad, and their activities during it, were very much the same as those of all scholars and researchers who go abroad: individual research agendas, professional development, and personal benefit within the constructs of international exchange. Combined with the scant evidence of long-term impact these scholars had after returning to China, despite generous national investment in their development, this article suggests that CCP policy to fund and use these experiences to improve Chinese universities is not being effectively implemented. The study also suggests that concern about these scholars’ true purposes for being abroad, expressed by some host governments, are not being fairly or consistently made. Therefore, the scholars’ own independently made, individually motivated, professionally important, and personally beneficial experiences suggest that neither sending nor receiving country understands fully the normality of this international academic experience, and that it is much more meaningful for the individual visiting scholar’s career, personal and professional development, and life goals beyond any real or implied national objectives. This article seeks to fill in important gaps in our knowledge.

Author Bio

Joshua S. McKeown, Ph.D. is Associate Provost for International Education at SUNY Oswego and International Education Leadership Fellow at the University at Albany (SUNY). He led SUNY Oswego to awards from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange (CSCSE) among others. McKeown authored The First Time Effect: The Impact of Study Abroad on College Student Intellectual Development (SUNY Press 2009) and numerous book chapters and articles including in the Journal of Contemporary China (2021). He did his Fulbright in India and was a mentor with IIE’s Connecting with the World Myanmar program.


Transnational education, rising nationalism, racialization and spaces of exclusion: Chinese overseas students from Shenzhen to Lakeside, USA

Shanshan Jiang, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Watch a lecture video on these two articles

Research Highlighted

Jiang, S. (2020). Diversity without integration? Racialization and Spaces of Exclusion in International Higher Education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2020.1847635

Jiang, S. (2021). The Call of the Homeland: Transnational Education and the Rising Nationalism among Chinese Overseas Students. Comparative Education Review65(1). https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/712053

These two research articles were developed from a larger transnational study on higher education mobility and the co-constitutiveness of class, race, and urban space. I started this project three years ago, hoping to capture a unique moment of transnational education mobility between China and the US. At that time, President Xi Jinping just abolished his term limit, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is expanding overseas, the US-China trade war escalated under Trump administration, and in the US, federal and state funding for public universities in the US were severely cut. I have intended to examine, how, through educational mobility, the economic, educational, and housing transformations of one city in China influence the uneven class and racial relations of another in the US. To do this, I employed a transnational ethnography to follow Chinese students as they migrate between their hometown Shenzhen and the host city that I called Lakeside. These two sites are uniquely situated within the global student migration, racial relations, and urban transformations. In the late 1970s, China’s Special Economic Zone (SEZ) policy made Shenzhen one of the first cities in the nation to experiment with the market economy. As a result, an emerging urban elite class has benefited significantly from this, to use Aiwha Ong’s language, “exception to socialism”. Lakeside, a medium-sized city in the US Midwest, has a different trajectory to globalization. In the recent decade, constant budget cuts in public education pushed Lakeside University to seek additional revenues outside the state and federal government, and consequently, international student recruitment has become an important source of the new revenue. I conducted participant observation at multiple spaces in both cities, including academic (classrooms, libraries, study rooms), residential (apartments, dorms), and social (tea shops, shopping malls, restaurants, lounges, and others). I also observed weekly meetings at Chinese student organizations, where Shenzhen participants and other Chinese students built close social networks.

In Jiang (2020), the article reveals the persistence of the ideology of whiteness and culture-based exclusion, which not only racialize foreign students of color, but also engage with this student population to perpetuate white supremacy. Chinese students were oftentimes objectified as economic capital and diversity signifier. They were frequently excluded in academic, social, and residential spaces. However, participants in this study interpreted their isolated college experiences as a natural result of living in a white university town, the mentality of which reflects the perpetuation of the whiteness ideology as well as China’s state ideology of racial and ethnic unity. Both whiteness ideology and China’s state discourse on unity aim to consolidate differences to elevate the interests of the dominant groups.

While marginalized, Chinese students also voluntarily isolated themselves from local Black and Asian American communities in the university town. When these students did mingle with Black communities, such as during hip-hop events, their artistic preference of Black cultures does not necessarily translate into the appreciation of Blackness. Rather, it echoes colorblindness in new ways that separate Black characteristics in the cultural form from their roots in the lives of Black communities. To these Chinese students, Americanness is also defined by the lack of Asianness, which echoes the troubling history of the racialization of Asians as the perpetual foreigners in the US.  As a result, these Chinese students are simultaneously validating a global racial hierarchy. Through individual experiences of students, the article calls out the systemic racism in higher education institutions as well as the role of nation-states (such as students’ homelands) in forming international students’ racial understanding in the host society.  

In Jiang (2021), the article investigates how the desire for Western credentials and transnational mobility reconcile with strong nationalist sentiments among Chinese students. I argue that transnational education has become a crucial part of China’s nation-building in the era of intensified globalization. Before studying abroad, these Chinese students were raised in a family culture immersed in patriotic discourses that attribute their family’s wealth to China’s opening-up policies and centralized governance. While living overseas, these students heavily rely on PRC state-affiliated organizations and China-based media to navigate academic and social contexts in a foreign land. Organizations such as Chinese Students and Scholars Association (associated with Chinese Consulates) are important actors in immersing Chinese students with patriotic values. In the US Midwest alone, Chinese consuls are sent to over 100 universities to meet with new Chinese students. For students in Lakeside, the first lecture from these organizations teaches them that America is far from the paradise described by the “American Dream”, an image that these students may have held onto when they decided to study abroad.

In addition to the influence of PRC-affiliated student organizations, Chinese young adults in this study were immersed in pro-PRC ideologies promoted by China-based media when living overseas. The rise of nationalism in the United States since the election of Trump has also been utilized by Chinese media to foster a strong national identity among overseas Chinese. These students have read numerous articles on the “inadequacy of Western democracy” from Chinese media. They have become convinced that while the US is struggling with internal polarization, China seems to be advancing at an accelerated pace. For Shenzhen students, while transnational education is an individual pursuit, the experience of transnational education is structured by Chinese consulates, student organizations and China-based media. The seemingly contradictory existence of the transnational desire for Western education and rising nationalist sentiments work jointly in the neoliberal market economy to build entrepreneurial yet patriotic individuals. This article reveals that the movement, mobility, and fluidity endowed by transnationalism could potentially enhance the migrants’ national identity and political intolerance.

Watch a lecture video on these two articles by Shanshan Jiang

Author Bio

Shanshan Jiang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison (expected graduation May 2021). Her research focuses on the political economy of educational migration, and the transnational construction of class and racial relations through higher education globalization. Shanshan Jiang is also a lecturer in the Department of Educational Policy Studies, teaching both domestic and global education courses, such as School and Society and Globalization and Education. Shanshan graduated from University of International Relations with a B.A. in English Language and Literature and has a M.A degree in Social Sciences and Comparative Education from University of California, Los Angeles. Prior to graduate school, Shanshan worked as a project manager in an educational investment company, and as an English teacher in China. She can be contacted via email: sjiang33@wisc.edu and Twitter @sjiang33.


‘Back to China’: what are barriers to enduring ‘green’ behaviour change among Chinese students returning home from the UK?

Research Highlighted:

Tyers, R. (2020). Barriers to enduring pro-environmental behaviour change among Chinese students returning home from the UK: a social practice perspective. Environmental Sociology, 1-12. doi:10.1080/23251042.2020.1855885

Dr Roger Tyers, University of Nottingham, UK

In 2015, colleagues and I carried out primary focus group research, and found that a period of study in the UK can positively influence the pro-environmental (‘green’) behaviours of Chinese students. Our participants said that while living in the UK they recycled more, reduced littering, and used less domestic energy. This was not because these Chinese students suddenly became heavily engaged with green norms in the UK, but mainly due to a simple but powerful desire to ‘fit in’ with peers and staff in their new ‘communities of practice’: on-campus, in halls, and homestays. Our findings were published in Sociological Research Online (Tyers et al, 2018) and summarised in a separate NRCEM summary here.

Those findings implied follow-up research: if students changed some green behaviours during their stay in the UK, what happened after they returned home? So, in 2019, funded by an ESRC post-doctoral fellowship, I carried out fieldwork in China – using focus groups with Chinese people who had previously studied in the UK – to find out.*

My forty-two participants were located in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Ningbo, and recruited through alumni societies and my own networks. Most now had white-collar jobs in sectors like Finance, IT, Education or Administration.

When asked if their green behaviours and attitudes changed during their time in the UK, participants echoed our previous findings. They said that expectations around energy usage or waste were much stronger in their UK communities in the UK than in those in China, and this influenced them to change too.

“I had a close friend called Nicky; a student from the Czech Republic. I remember she was carrying an empty plastic bottle; she kept it for the whole day because she wanted to put it in the recycle bin. So, I was like, “Why are you still holding this big bottle? Just throw it away in the bin”. She said, “I want to put it in the recycle bin”. So, she kept it for the whole day; you can’t imagine a Chinese person doing that. I do better sorting now because I try to make sure this recycled stuff will be in better use in the future.”

(Female, Hangzhou)

When participants were asked if greener behaviours had endured after they returned to China, responses were far more mixed. While a few participants said they continued to recycle, or to re-use plastic shopping bags after coming home, most said that any green behaviours adopted in the UK were soon lost. The green peer pressure that participants experienced in the UK was suddenly absent in China, where being green often seemed pointless when faced with ‘free-riders’ who didn’t seem to care or understand about, say, sorting their domestic waste correctly.

Perhaps most interesting were the wider barriers to green behaviour in Chinese society which emerged. These, despite my small, unrepresentative sample, might be generalisable beyond these ex-students. Such barriers include the power of ‘mianzi’ and ‘guanxi’, media and government discourses, and an absence of ‘post-materialist’ values.

Mianzi may be translated as ‘face’ – a  desire to maintain favourable self-esteem and project an image of wealth and prestige (Sun et al, 2014). Many participants reported that they and their peers are likely to spend money on luxurious items such as high-performance cars, and noted that the norms around these purchases were quite different in the UK.

 ‘People choose smaller cars in the UK. Here people prefer larger cars . . . I was very surprised in a good way that people, even though they are getting good pay, still go for smaller cars, I think it’s very environmentally friendly. That’s a very good thing for me . . . In China, if you are having more money definitely you’ll get a much bigger car. Sometimes you don’t even need that much size.’

(Female, Shanghai)

Many said that a huge problem in China is one of waste, seen as a consequence of ‘guanxi’. Guanxi literally means ‘interpersonal connections’. Maintaining connections often requires sharing food or giving gifts (Sun et al, 2014). Many participants admitted that such activities are often unnecessarily ostentatious and wasteful but are vital to maintaining friendship bonds or growing professional networks.

‘In China we really have a big get-together, lunch together or dinner, it’s quite lenient that if you can’t finish your food, you can take the leftovers. It’s a shame but people don’t really do it, it means “I’m poor, so give me some food” ’

(Female, Shanghai)

At a broader level, others noted that civil society conditions differed greatly between the UK and China. Two participants, working for a Chinese environmental NGO, observed that NGOs must be cautious about public-facing campaigns, especially since the introduction of a restrictive Foreign NGO Law in 2017 (Standaert, 2017). Instead, many NGOs prefer quiet engagement with government and businesses. This was a topical theme. Just before data collection, the student-led ‘Fridays for the Future’ campaign was active in many western countries, and in Asian cities such as Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong. But in mainland China this campaign was practically non-existent.

‘You know the students are doing protesting things, that would never happen in China, like they come out of school and they make a poster and here the parents would never allow this.’

(Female, Ningbo)

In terms of media and government discourses, participants said that the Chinese government is increasingly talking about environmental protection. Several quoted President Xi’s mantra that ‘Green Hills and Clear Waters are Gold & Silver Mountains’. But this discourse is usually about explaining or justifying state policies, rather than emphasising citizens’ individual responsibility – a theme more prevalent in liberal western democracies (Chen and Lees, 2018).

Finally, many participants said that because of the primacy of economic (‘materialist’) concerns, China is not yet ready for rapid moves towards sustainability (a ‘post-materialist’ concern). Individually, many said they were preoccupied with job insecurity or the costs of raising a family, while seeing the government’s main role as raising living standards, not environmental protection. That said, the increasing visibility of problems like air pollution might be changing this, as one participant eloquently discussed:

“Sixty years [ago] we were farmers, so we’ve had a lot of development in the past forty years. Now we’re at a stage where we care more about how much we can spend, not about other things . . . it’s like in the UK in the Industrial Revolution. You guys didn’t care about the environment too . . . But everything takes time, you have to get hurt to change. You have to see the ugliness, the dirty things, to make yourself change.”

(male, Shanghai)

To conclude, this study firstly hints at the power of social norms for quickly changing (green) behaviour in a new country. However, norms can disappear just as quickly as they appear, as seems to have been the case with this group of Chinese graduates following their UK studies.

Secondly, and despite its limited scope, this study suggests some specifically Chinese socio-cultural barriers to greener consumption behaviour: ‘mianzi’ and ‘guanxi’, media and government discourses, and a lack of post-materialist values. Arguably, the responsibility of individuals (and not, say, fossil fuel companies and government infrastructure) towards sustainability has been overstated in western liberal discourses. But it remains the case that changes to individual consumption behaviour – the ways we travel, eat, warm our homes, buy and dispose of products – are vital. It is possible that China may pursue an ‘eco-authoritarian’ approach to this problem, using sanctions and laws rather than ‘soft’ approaches seen so far in liberal democracies. In any case, if and how a country of China’s size and influence fosters more sustainable modes of consumption will be of critical importance in global efforts at decarbonisation and sustainability.

*To reduce the carbon footprint of this fieldwork, I opted to take the train to China, rather than fly. You can read about that decision and its consequences here.

Author Bio

Dr Roger Tyers is a Teaching Associate in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Southampton. His research interests are on behaviour change and public policy, especially regarding sustainability, transport and energy. He can be contacted via R.Tyers@soton.ac.uk or on Twitter @RogerTyersUK


Chen, G. C. and Lees, C. (2018) ‘The New, Green, Urbanization in China: Between Authoritarian Environmentalism and Decentralization’, Chinese Political Science Review. Springer Singapore, 3(2), pp. 212–231. doi: 10.1007/s41111-018-0095-1.

Standaert, M. (2017) As It Looks to Go Green, China Keeps a Tight Lid on Dissent, Yale Environment 360. Available at: https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-it-looks-to-go-green-china-keeps-a-tight-lid-on-dissent  (Accessed: 20 August 2019).

Sun, G., D’Alessandro, S. and Johnson, L. (2014) ‘Traditional culture, political ideologies, materialism and luxury consumption in China’, International Journal of Consumer Studies, 38(6), pp. 578–585. doi: 10.1111/ijcs.12117.

Tyers, R. et al. (2018) ‘China-to-UK Student Migration and Pro-environmental Behaviour Change: A Social Practice Perspective’, Sociological Research Online, 42(4), pp. 1–23. doi: 10.1177/1360780418794194.


An Introduction to the Journal of International Students Special Issue: International Students in China

Tian, M. & Lu, G. (2020, eds.) International Students in China. Special Issue in Chinese. Journal of International Students, 10S(1).

The experience of Chinese students studying in Western countries is one important topic of international student research. The research enthusiasm surrounding Chinese students overseas is not surprising: since the 1990s, China has been a major global exporter of international students. The large population of Chinese students studying in Western, English-speaking countries lends itself to a potential large body of research data. From the perspective of policy-makers and practitioners, understanding the expectations and experiences of Chinese students is crucial for the healthy development of international education sectors.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, observations of Chinese higher education have revealed another important feature of its internationalization process. While China continues to send out their students abroad, the country increasingly enhances its ability to attract in international students. In the year 2001, 61,869 international students studied at Chinese universities. The number increased to 492,185 in 2018.

This trend did not attract much research attention in the first decade of the new century. In recent years, a growing number of scholars has begun to focus on international students in China. Nevertheless, the number of internationally published research is limited, and the scope, breadth and depth of the discussions remain inadequate.

It is noteworthy that we traced many more studies on international students in China in Chinese domestic research literature. This made us reflect on the impact of the language barriers faced by local scholars in disseminating their research in English in international journals.

Against this background this special issue of Journal of International Students was planned and organized. It focuses on the experiences of international students at Chinese universities, providing an important Chinese perspective on the international studies of international students. This special issue includes empirical studies, theoretical discussions and reflections on practices of international student education at universities in different regions of China. Intentionally published in the Chinese language, this special issue hopefully encourages native-Chinese-speaking researchers to contribute to this increasingly important research field. The following is a brief introduction to the nine articles included in the special issue.

The first article, “Stages and Characteristics of the Development in Chinese International Student Education over a 70-Year Period,” written by Lijie Li, analyzed the development of China’s international student education from 1949 onwards. Seven development stages were proposed. Key features of each stage were discussed.

Xiufeng Zhang and Hengwen Yang’s article, “Emergent Topics and Development of the Studies on International Students in China: A Visualized Analysis of CSSCI Journals from 1998 to 2018,” examined research papers in Chinese journals on international students in China. The articles, published between 1998 and 2018, were retrieved from the Chinese Social Sciences Citation Index database. The analysis led to the identification of key authors, key research institutes, popular topics and recent trends in the research of international students in China.

Why did Engineering Students Choose to Study in China?” by Guoyang Zhang and Jiabin Zhu explored the factors influencing international students’ decision to study for an engineering degree at Chinese universities. Data were generated by in-depth interviews with 22 international engineering students at a leading Chinese university. Drawing on the push-pull theory and the three-stage decision-making theory, their qualitative analysis revealed major factors attracting the participants to China, including the availability of scholarships, host university rankings and opportunities for personal growth and professional development.

Analysis of the Relationship between Learning Environment and Student Engagement: A Case Study of International Undergraduate Students in China” was written by Genshu Lu, Lijie Li and Mei Tian. The article explored the influences of learning environment on international students’ academic engagement. Drawing on a survey involving 1,428 undergraduate international students studying in six Chinese cities, this research revealed uneven academic engagement among the participants. While roughly one fourth of the participants reported to actively participate in learning, the rest was either inadequately engaged or lacked academic engagement. Environment influences were discussed.

Student engagement is also the focus of the article “Exploring Factors Affecting Behavioral, Cognitive and Emotional Engagement of International Undergraduate Students in China” by Meiqiong Gong and Yuhao Cen. This survey study examined the behavioral, cognitive and emotional engagements of 202 international students at a research university in Shanghai. The findings showed that gender, family college education experience and level of study programmes affected the participants’ emotional engagement. In addition, the research revealed the positive influences of supportive campus environment and effective student-faculty interactions on the three dimensions of international student engagement.

Lan Yu and Shucheng Zhu’s “Measurement and Analysis of Learning Engagement of South-Asian Students in Chinese Universities” focused on the learning engagement of 193 South Asian students at three universities in Beijing. Data were generated using a self-developed questionnaire. Results of the exploratory factor analysis revealed four dimensions of South-Asian student engagement. Correlation analysis showed the positive relationships between international student learning motivation, learning behaviors, learning strategies and learning outcomes.

Alexander English and Ruobing Chi’s “A Longitudinal Study on International Students’ Stress, Problem Focused Coping and Cross-Cultural Adaptation in China” explored the relationships between perceived cultural distance, coping strategies and socio-cultural adaptation. The longitudinal survey study involved 121 international students at four universities in eastern China. The results showed that the participants’ perceived cultural distance was not a predictor of their socio-cultural adaptation ability. Compared to their Asian counterparts, non-Asian participants were more likely to adopt problem-focused coping strategies. The research also indicated significant interaction effect between stress, coping strategies and cultures of origin.

International Student Education as the Cornerstone of Cultural Exchanges: The Case of Xi’an Jiaotong University” was written by Xiaojing Feng, Guangrui Wen, Tingji, Xiangzhe Sun and Wei Zhao. The article discussed teaching, learning and management practices of international student education at Xi’an Jiaotong University in China. Emphasizing humanistic values of international education, the authors reflected on the functions of international student education in the promotion of cultural exchanges and intercultural understanding.

In “Re-thinking International Students’ Voice in South-South Cooperation in Higher Education: An International Development Perspective”, Tingting Yuan reflected on China’s higher education and scholarship provision to international students from developing countries. The reflection was based on a focus-group study involving 40 international degree students in five Chinese cities. The research findings revealed “equality” (i.e. the participants reported little pressure caused by nationality or race) and “sustainability” (i.e. their learning experience is sustainable) as two features of international student experiences in China. The author stressed that the two features reflected China’s distinctiveness in its higher education provision in South-South Cooperation and its status in contemporary global political economy. You can read more details of this article here.


The enactment of agency in international academic mobility: a case of Chinese female PhD students in Australia

Research Highlighted:

Xing Xu (2021): The enactment of agency in international academic mobility: a case of Chinese female PhD students in Australia. The Australian Educational Researcher. doi:10.1007/s13384-020-00411-x

Read Dr Xu’s other article here.

Dr Xing Xu, Sichuan International Studies University

Background and Research Questions

In China, there has been a rampant folklore about the female PhD, paralleling the female PhD with male and female as a third gender. Whether a third gender discourse was media manipulation or a social epidemic, the current literature on Chinese female PhDs is predominantly developed from an etic perspective. Little is known about how this cohort conceptualises themselves from an emic perspective as they internalise the identity of “female PhD” via their mundane doctoral education practices. Offering a platform for Chinese female PhDs to voice their perceptions is a significant step towards disclosing more pertinent nuances. Using Australia as the research site, this study aimed to investigate the interaction between identity and international academic mobility, with a focus on unpacking two research questions: 1. To what extent is the concept of third gender represented in Chinese female PhDs’ border- crossing doctoral education experiences? 2. How do Chinese female PhDs navigate their identity construction as an in-betweener traversing different sociocultural spaces?

Theoretical Framework and Research Methods

Given the salience of agency in one’s approaches to identity construction and study in an international education context (Inouye and McAlpine 2017; Phan et al. 2019), agency was chosen as the theoretical lens through which this study addressed the above questions. Also, the concept of in-betweenness (Bhabha 1994; Dai et al. 2018) was utilised, which was suitable for analysing how the participants mobilised agency to construct a transformed identity in physical and psychological transactions at and across the boundaries between their home and host cultural spaces. This study utilised a qualitative methodology of semi-structured interview that offers the flexibility to promote the participants’ fruitful reflection (Mill 2001). Depending on the participants’ availability and preference, either face-to-face (4 out of 10) or telephone (6 out of 10) interviews were conducted. Each interview lasted approximately 90 min. In this time, interviewees were encouraged to share their experiences regarding their preparedness prior to the overseas sojourn and their engagement in learning and social activities while studying in Australia. Further, as this study was a gender-based inquiry, they were also required to interpret their lived experiences from a female PhD student’s perspective.


By and large, this study reveals that the participants’ representation of their identity takes issue with their home cultural discourse, which stigmatises this cohort as a sexless third gender, objects to a deficit discourse that problematises international students as others, and challenges a broader gender discourse among societies which tends to highlight female doctoral students’ structural constraints (e.g. Haynes et al. 2012; Juniper et al. 2012) instead of their personal agency. With positive self-positioning, the participants employed three forms of “agency in mobility”, namely, agency as struggle and resistance, needs-response agency, and agency for becoming, to construct a transformative identity that was materialised through agentic endeavours and myriad structures within the in-between space. This study illuminates two dualities in the findings. The first duality points to the fact that the participants’ enactment of agency must accommodate structural factors in both home space and host spaces. On one hand, the participants’ agency as struggle and resistance was noticeably manifested prior to their mobility, in subverting the restrictive discourse held by their parents and relatives regarding the female PhD in their home context. On the other hand, their needs-response agency and agency for becoming were noteworthy during their stay in the host context. They presented themselves as proactive agents who capitalised on resources to meet professional, culture learning and emotional needs in the alien context. As well, they invested their efforts in the international education trajectory to transform their identity which features flexibility, inclusivity and liberality. The second duality relates to the reciprocity between agency and the in-between space in shaping the students’ identity. Whereas enactment of agency is entangled with the students’ assessment, imagination and manipulation of the in-between space, their agentic outcomes keep transforming the grand structure of that space, a consequence of which influences their agency.

As one of the first studies investigating the agency of international Chinese female PhDs, this study makes theoretical and empirical contributions documented above. It however has several limitations which hopefully can be addressed in future research. One of them is that it can hardly imply any generalisability or representativity of the cohort of international Chinese female PhDs given its small size. Also, the participants feature a great extent of homogeneity in terms of their socioeconomic level and marital status, which may hinder diverse findings from emerging. In order to tackle this, future research may consider investigating a bigger sample size with more heterogeneity. Further, this study only concentrated on an exploration of students’ interpretations at the time point when their sojourn was underway. Future studies may gain further insights by looking into their narrative after repatriating to China upon graduation. Does Chinese female PhDs’ enactment of agency change as they re-enter the home space? What impact does the international mobility have on their meaning-making and practices of agency upon repatriation? These are questions left to be examined.

Author Bio

Dr Xing Xu obtained her PhD from the University of Newcastle, Australia, and is Lecturer at Sichuan International Studies University. Her research interests include internationalization of higher education, doctoral students’ evaluation of educational experience, academic mobility, identity construction of doctoral students, and qualitative inquiry. Her publications have appeared in Higher Education Research and Development, The Australian Educational Researcher, Reflective Practice, etc. Her recent co-authored book The Eastern Train on the Western Track: An Australian Case of Chinese Doctoral Students’ Adaptation was published by Springer in 2020. She can be contacted via email: xing.xu@uon.edu.au.


‘Stupid and lazy’ youths? Meritocratic discourse and perceptions of popular stereotyping of VET students in China

Research Highlighted

Geng Wang (2021) ‘Stupid and lazy’ youths? Meritocratic discourse and perceptions of popular stereotyping of VET students in China, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2020.1868977

Read about Dr Wang’s other article here.

Dr Geng Wang, Tianjin University, China


Since the start of the Reform Era in 1978, vocational education and training (VET) in China has been seen as inferior to academic routes and positioned at the bottom of the educational hierarchy. VET students are stereotyped as being ‘stupid and lazy’ and suffer considerable prejudice in Chinese society. Drawing on Foucault’s disciplinary power and Ball’s idea of performativity, this paper analyses how academically focused, exam-driven societal attitudes, as a form of meritocratic discourse, impact on these students and on how they perceive their stereotyped position within the Reform Era educational system. The findings reveal that these students have internalised the ideology of meritocracy, coming to see themselves as inferior and inadequate compared to their academic counterparts. Turning ‘the gaze’ upon themselves, they examine whether they ‘add up’ and assume responsibility for their own ‘failures’. VET students are trained to be the new kind of youthful subject required to sustain the Reform Era China’s engagement with neoliberal governance.


Based on the lived experiences of Chinese vocational college students, this article focuses on the academically focused, exam-driven societal attitudes and sentiments that have permeated so many areas of these young people’s lives. Drawing on Foucault’s (1977) concept of disciplinary power and Stephen Ball’s (2000, 2003, 2012) idea of performativity, this study analyses how such societal attitudes, as a form of meritocratic discourse, impact on vocational students and on how they perceive their position within the Reform Era educational system.

Theoretical framework

In his early work, Discipline and Punish (1977), Foucault suggests that disciplinary power is a form of ‘power-knowledge’ that observes, monitors, shapes, and controls the behaviour of individuals within institutions and society. The technique of examination is particularly powerful as ‘it is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish’, and ‘it establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them’ (1977, p. 184). Within a Foucauldian framework, Ball theorised his ideas about the performance of students, teachers, and schools into the notion of ‘performativity’ (2000, 2003, 2012). For Ball, performativity is a technology, a culture, and a mode of regulation – or a system of ‘terror’, in Lyotard’s words – that employs judgments, comparisons, and displays as means of control, attrition, and change (Ball, 2000; 2003). The performances (of individual subjects or organisations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or as displays of ‘quality’, or as ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. They stand for, encapsulate, or represent the worth, quality, or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement (Ball, 2000). Operating in the neoliberal market of performances, the individual is made into an enterprise, a self-maximising productive unit committed to the ‘headlong pursuit of relevance as defined by the market’ (Falk, 1999, p. 25).

Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power, especially his understanding of using examination as a technique (1977, p. 184), provides a conceptual lens to help us understand how individual young subjects are formed in the Reform Era and how the exam culture constructs the ‘docile and capable’ bodies required by neoliberalism (Foucault, 1977, p. 294). Moreover, Ball’s idea of performativity is an important complement to the Foucauldian perspective for this paper, as it looks at the ways in which lists, grades, and rankings work to change the meaning of educational practice within a neoliberal context (Ball, 2013). Ball extended the Foucauldian concepts to consider how performativity as a key mechanism of neoliberal government uses comparisons, judgments, and self-management (Ball, 2013, p. 163). The next section discusses the methods employed for this study.


Vignettes of several students’ life stories regarding their family expectations and secondary school learning experiences are presented. These vignettes are representative of the stories told by the participants in the study. The findings also demonstrate how the students perceived the exam system and their stereotyped positions.

Discussion and Conclusion

This study reveals the lived experiences of these students when pushed to achieve academic excellence in their previous schooling experiences, their perceptions of the exam system, and their interpretations of their disadvantaged situations. Growing up in an environment where the meritocratic discourse permeated so many areas of their lives, these students had internalised the ideology of meritocracy and consequently the stereotypes against them, seeing themselves as inferior and inadequate in relation to their academic counterparts. Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power and Ball’s idea of performativity have provided useful tools for making sense of vocational students’ lived experiences and opinions in the Chinese Reform Era.

In their research, Gong and Dobinson (2019, p. 339) found both socialist and neoliberal rhetoric at play in the Chinese young people’s narratives they investigated. They supported the view that ‘the existence of a neoliberal discourse in Chinese education does not mean a neoliberal subjectification in the Chinese people’ (Gong & Dobinson, 2019). However, the findings of this paper demonstrate that the Reform Era has produced a neoliberal legacy – vocational students who are stereotyped as self-deserving failures and assigned to the bottom tier of the educational system. Through the discourse of meritocracy, these young people turn ‘the gaze’ upon themselves to see if they ‘add up’, and take responsibility for their own ‘failures’. They are trained to be ‘bodies that are docile and capable’ (Foucault, 1977, p. 294), producing a new kind of youthful subject who can act in their own self-interest in order to sustain the Chinese Reform Era’s engagement with neoliberal governance. However, the perspectives of these students also offer evidence that young people have the potential to move beyond being mere ‘objects and instruments’ for the exercise of disciplinary power.

Author bio:

Dr Geng Wang currently works as a researcher at School of Education, Tianjin University, China. She is also a member of Tianjin Institute for Emerging Engineering Education. She holds a PhD (University of Glasgow) in education. Her research interests revolve around education and work transitions through the lifecourse, particularly in relation to vocational education and training for young people, what influences transitions and their impact on learning and development. She can be contacted via geng.wang0313@hotmail.com.


Students as Partners: A New Ethos for the Transformation of Teacher and Student Identities in Chinese Higher Education

Research Highlighted:

Liang, Y., Dai, K., & Matthews, K. E. (2020). Students as Partners: A New Ethos for the Transformation of Teacher and Student Identities in Chinese Higher Education, International Journal of Chinese Education, 9(2), 131-150. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/22125868-12340124

Mr Yifei Liang, University of Queensland, Australia


In this theoretical discussion paper, in the context of internationalisation, we contribute a novel perspective for Chinese higher education (HE) sectors by considering the possibility of adopting Students as Partners (SaP hereafter) as an initiative to support the transformation of teacher and student identities within Chinese HE, and advocate further adaptation in Chinese pedagogical practices. This paper starts with an introduction on SaP, followed by a discussion about the concept of identity in teaching and learning. Then, based on the survey results on the expectations of Chinese university students and academics in different periods, critical discussion on the trend of identity changes of student and teacher in Chinese universities is undertaken. This leads to further understanding the intersections between the three bodies of literature (SaP, identity, Chinese HE). Finally, a discussion about the possibility of conducting SaP practices in the context of Chinese HE is critically presented.

The growing body of SaP in teaching and learning

The concept of teachers engaging with SaP focuses attention on the pedagogical relationships between learners and teachers (Healey, Flint, & Harrington, 2014; Matthews, Dwyer, Hines, & Turner, 2018). In practice, pedagogical partnerships between students and teachers unfolds as ‘a collaborative, reciprocal process through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular or pedagogical conceptualisation, decision making, implementation, investigation, or analysis’ (Cook-Sather, Bovill, & Felten, 2014, pp. 6–7). In partnership, certain values are enacted between students and teachers that define the relationships such that SaP is a values-based practice (Matthews et al., 2018). Healey et al. (2014, pp. 14–15) named the values that underpin this relationship as ‘trust, plurality, responsibility, authenticity, honesty, inclusively, reciprocity, and empowerment’, emphasising that students and academic staff benefit from it together. For Cook-Sather et al. (2014), the values of mutual respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility for learning and teaching were central to SaP. SaP stretches the traditional boundaries of the curriculum where any space on campus becomes a pedagogical space where students and staff can learn together (Dwyer, 2018). Analysis of theoretical frames in research on SaP found that the constructs of power and identity underpinned partnership practices as relational praxis that calls into question taken-for-granted assumptions about the role of the teachers and the students in ways that illuminate power dynamics and relational identities by giving permission to learners and teachers to reshape them (Matthews et al., 2019a). For the sake of sustainability and enriching SaP as a global scholarship, partnership is discussed as a ‘complex cultural-linguistic construct’, emphasising that cultural backgrounds will affect how people interpret SaP (Green, 2019; Cook-Sather et al., 2018).

Identity in teaching and learning

The concept of identity is about how individuals and society answer the question ‘Who are you?’ (Vignoles, Schwartz, & Luyckx, 2011). In this broad notion, ‘people identify their “selves” not only with their individual physical and psychological characteristics, but also with significant others, groups or social categories, material objects, and places’ (Vignoles, 2017, p. 2). Therefore, the identity of a person is shaped by the influence of personal internal factors and the external environment. At the same time, identity also influences the response of the individual to future expectations (Simon, 2004), which plays a vital role in personal development. As co-existing individuals in universities, the identity of students and teachers can be affected by external social and cultural environments and the perception of differences between different individuals. Such an ongoing and changing process will further link to their academic performance and future development (Lounsbury, Huffstetler, Leong, & Gibson, 2005).

A discussion about identity changes in the progress of Chinese higher education

According to the exploration of Cortazzi and Jin (1996), Tam, Heng, and Jiang (2009), Jia (2011) and Kim and Olson (2016), it is evident that there is a general shift in the identities of learners and teachers toward more egalitarian teaching and learning environments. This is a move toward more participatory and relational pedagogies that value the contributions of students in the learning and teaching process. As reform policies continue in the context of internationalisation, we expect that more Chinese university students and teachers will have a new understanding of their identities through the expansion of their horizons and experiences in the global HE context.

Identity perception in pedagogical partnership

In the context of SaP, Cook-Sather (2015, p. 2) defined the notion of identity as ‘how individuals define and experience themselves and are defined by others—how an individual/personal sense of sociocultural location and character intersects with how that individual is constructed in many different ways within any given culture and society’. Therefore, identity in partnership is about how teachers and students treat themselves as teacher, student, and partners, and how they perceive each other (Matthews et al., 2019b). As one of the important factors of pedagogical partnership, Cook-Sather (2015) pointed out that the identities of students and teachers influence and are influenced by partnership. In partnership, it requires teachers to recognise the value of students in the process of forming their identities. In this way, both students and teachers could gain valuable experiences in a mutual and reciprocal way (Bovill, 2019a). The shift of student and teacher identities reflected by SaP scholars resonates with the marked changing trend in Chinese HE over the past two decades. We posit that SaP is a more developed form of this trend while acknowledging that Chinese HE comprises a large, diverse and complex array of institutions where western pedagogies have to be adapted with criticality.

Adapting to the new era of Chinese higher education

The current ethos of partnership is framed within a western-centric, Judaeo-Christian value system and rooted in student engagement (Healey et al., 2014), student voice (Cook-Sather, 2018) and the response to the commitments on democracy (Bovill et al., 2013), and these practices, not without challenges, have proven impactful in western-centric universities. What values should guide the partnership ethos in China? This is a line of conceptual and empirical research we are currently conducting that draws on the voice of Chinese students and academics at Chinese universities and theorisations of Confucian values intersecting with values espoused in western-centric SaP literature (Liang & Matthews, 2020). The recent research (Liang & Matthews, 2020) has strongly shown, with the establishment of more Sino-foreign universities and the continuous broadening of horizons, SaP practices are growing in Chinese universities. Through a program of research into SaP in Chinese HE, we are exploring this belief and further investigating how student-teacher relational identities are being constructed and disrupted through educational reform efforts. This is also a line of research where many more scholars are welcomed and encouraged to explore and investigate.


This article critically discussed the concepts of identity in the Chinese HE con- text by connecting with the western idea, SaP, attempting to provide a possible way for further identity change of the participants in Chinese HE. Based on the comparison of survey results over a decade spanning the century, the perception changes of teachers and students on their identities in Chinese universities indicate a trend of inclusive and respectful teacher-student relationships and more mutually beneficial teacher-student interactions in teaching and learning—resonates with the relational identity reflected by SaP. Meanwhile, the cultural-depended characteristic of SaP and the gradual opening of national policies and initiatives as the scaffold of each other, providing a positive environment.

Authors’ Bio

Mr Yifei Liang is a doctoral student at School of Education, University of Queensland. His research focuses on students as partners (SaP), student engagement, learner-teacher relationship and higher education pedagogy in the context of Chinese higher education. His scoping review of SaP in Asian countries has appeared in Higher Education Research & Development. He can be contacted via y.liang@uq.net.au.

Dr Kun Dai is a postdoc research fellow (funded by China International Postdoc Program) at the Graduate School of Education, Peking University. His research focuses on teaching and learning in higher education, doctoral education, transnational higher education, and intercultural learning and adjustment. Dr Dai is an associate editor of Journal of International Students. His articles have appeared in several peer-reviewed journals, including Compare, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, and Oxford Review of Education. He can be contacted via kdai@pku.edu.cn.

Dr Kelly E. Matthews is an associate professor at the Institute of Teaching and Learning Innovation, University of Queensland. Her research interest includes students as partners in higher education, curriculum design in higher education, and university teaching and learning. Dr Matthews is an Australian Learning & Teaching Fellow and she also serves as Inaugural Co-editor, International Journal for Students as Partners (IJSaP). Dr Matthews can be contacted via k.matthews1@uq.edu.au.


Why do we think we are doing everything right [just] because we do it’: what transforms Chinese and Scottish student-teachers’ taken-for-granted views in study abroad experiences

Research Highlighted

Li, H., & Costa, C. (2020). ‘Why do we think we are doing everything right [just] because we do it’: what transforms Chinese and Scottish student-teachers’ taken-for-granted views in study abroad experiencesCompare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057925.2020.1852915

About the Study

Our study is set against the backdrop of increasing global interconnectedness and cultural diversity in many communities of the world. It is part of a larger qualitative study which explored how teacher education is internationalised in China and Scotland and how internationalisation shapes Chinese and Scottish student-teachers’ development as globally competent teachers. Although there are emerging studies focusing on how study abroad experiences shape student-teachers’ learning, scant attention is paid to student-teachers’ perspectives about how they come to know and understand themselves and others from perspectives and experiences facilitated by study abroad programmes.

This paper aims to provide an in-depth understanding of the extent to which Chinese and Scottish student-teachers engage with difference while studying abroad in different countries or regions and how these experiences transform their understanding of difference. More specifically, the study drew on data collected through a qualitative questionnaire and semi-structured interviews with 14 student-teachers from two universities in China and Scotland. The research participants featured in the study fall into three groups: 1) Chinese student-teachers who studied abroad through university programmes; 2) Scottish student-teachers who studied abroad through university programmes; and 3) Scottish student-teachers who studied abroad through external means. Using Mezirow’s (1978, 1991, 2003, 2012) transformative learning as the theoretical framework for data analysis, two overarching themes emerged related to how student-teachers experienced and made sense of difference.


The research has evidenced that study abroad programmes that provide student-teachers with opportunities to experience difference as cultural outsiders have a transformative potential. Such experiences can trigger strong emotions which are important for setting the stage for student-teachers’ reflection and self-transformation, and thus serve as edge-emotions (Mälkki 2010). However, this requires deep involvement in the ‘new’ environments. Our study shows that limited contact with local cultures can keep student-teachers within comfort zones as happy learners, foreigners, or tourists abroad. To maximise the benefits of study abroad programmes, student-teachers should be provided with opportunities to step outside their comfort zones, ‘enter into the spirit of other cultures’ (Parekh 2000, 227) and thus challenge their taken-for-granted views. We have also found that appropriate learning support – such as preparatory modules, briefings related to cultural awareness before departure and active discussions during and after study abroad programmes – can better prepare student-teachers to imagine themselves in culturally different contexts.

 Additionally, our study suggests that the different forms of reflection that student-teachers experience when abroad can lead to different levels of learning. This finding provides empirical explanations about the distinction between Mezirow’s (1991) three forms of reflection related to transformative learning. Learning predominantly facilitated by content reflection without inquiring into the root causes of difference led many Chinese student-teachers to uncritically assimilate educational ideas and practices from host countries, preventing them from arriving at transformative insights. Further, if student-teachers are not supported to make critical appraisals of the differences they encounter, such encounters can inadvertently reinforce ethnocentric or inappropriate views about themselves and others as shown in some Chinese student-teachers’ experiences. At best, such an approach can trigger some level of process reflection – demonstrating an ability to make changes in their behaviours to accommodate some of the features of the local culture. Nonetheless, ‘change in behavioural repertoire’ through process reflection leaves student-teachers’ assumptions, particularly their challenged views, unquestioned, which cannot allow for ‘epistemological change’ (Taylor 2017, 20).

In contrast, critical reflection on difference moves student-teachers from a transitional stage characterised by challenges in frames of reference and discomforting emotions towards a transformative insight. Students who engaged in  group critique or self-questioning – as facilitated by the Scottish academic support teams – was vital to encourage student-teachers to (re-)examine their taken-for-granted perspectives and formulate more justifiable, open and inclusive views about different cultures and practices. The ‘potentially colonist nature’ of study abroad programmes (Parr 2012, 106) is a common feature in many previous studies exploring the experiences of Western student-teachers sent to developing countries (Buchanan et al. 2017; Santoro and Major 2012), but it was not present in the study abroad programmes promoted by the Scottish university in our study.


Our findings presented in this paper provide important pedagogical implications. To provide a discourse for disrupting student-teachers’ frames of reference, the pedagogy of discomfort is an essential approach for both study abroad programmes and teacher education curricula. This requires teacher educators to develop knowledge and skills to “push” student-teachers out of their comfort zones in a supportive way. Central to such an approach is the design of effective learning content and also contexts that can problematise student-teachers’ pre-assumptions and allow them to perceive ‘otherness’ via an informed and reflective approach. Critical pedagogy is also vital to fostering transformative learning in teacher education as it can encourage student-teachers to critically reflect on multiple perspectives or norms held by people of different cultures. This requires teacher educators to develop an appreciation for difference and be critically aware of their own frames of reference and how they influence their practices in teacher education.

Nonetheless, a successful incorporation of the pedagogy of discomfort and critical pedagogy depends on institutional support and professional training of teacher educators who are the key actors in designing, writing up and implementing study abroad programmes (Morley et al. 2019). Meanwhile, conversations among all stakeholders, including student-teachers, teacher educators, researchers, institutional leaders and policymakers, are essential to ensure that the aims of study abroad programmes are effectively communicated and fully integrated in teacher education to foster critical reflection and transformative learning experiences.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Huaping Li, Shanghai Normal University, China

Dr Huaping Li is a lecturer at Shanghai Normal University in China. Her PhD looked at the internationalisation of teacher education in China and Scotland from a comparative lens. She is keen on research themes related to teacher mobility, international student mobility and teachers’ global competence in an increasingly global and multicultural context. She is currently working on research projects focusing on university students’ participation in study abroad programmes in China, Scotland and South Korea, and international students’ online learning experiences. She can be contacted via: huaping_li@shnu.edu.cn

Dr Cristina Costa, Durham University, UK

Dr Cristina Costa is an academic in the School of Education at Durham University in the UK. She has a strong interest in educational and digital practices and inequalities. She has conducted research on different topics including widening participation, digital literacies and digital inequalities, curriculum innovation and digital scholarship practices. Recent past projects include the ERASMUS+ funded project on Digital Literacy and Inclusion of Learners from Disadvantaged Background, and the SRHE and Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland projects on Estranged Students’ Experiences of Higher Education (with Professor Yvette Taylor).

Currently, she is alongside Dr Huaping Li working on a project funded by the BA/Leverhulme Small Grants entitled ‘From on-campus to online: International students returning to academia in the context of COVID-19’.


Daughters’ dilemmas and the price of aspirations: Rural education migrants’ experiences in China

Research Highlighted:

Sier, W. (2020) (Open Access) Daughters’ dilemmas: the role of female university graduates in rural households in Hubei province, China. Gender, Place & Culture, DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2020.1817873

Sier. W. (2020) The Price of Aspirations: Education Migrants’ Pursuit of Higher Education in Hubei Province, China. The European Journal of Development Research. DOI: 10.1057/s41287-020-00297-6

Dr Willy Sier, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands


These two articles are both based on one year of fieldwork in Hubei province (2015-2016) in the context of research for a PhD-project with a focus on the increased educational participation of students from rural backgrounds in China’s higher education system. These articles in particular focus on the effects of educational expansion on gendered rural household dynamics (Daughters’s Dilemmas) and the way youth aspirations are rooted in structural (family) conditions (The Price of Aspirations). These articles both relate China’s educational expansion to the domain of the family.

Daughters’ dilemmas: the role of female university graduates in rural households in Hubei province, China.

This article, published open access in Gender, Place, and Culture, explores how higher education changes the role of rural daughters in the household. It shows that the contributions of university-educated daughters to rural households go far beyond what has been described in the literature on women in rural Chinese families. Decisions pertaining to the careers and marriages of highly educated daughters are shaped by the strategies of rural households aiming to establish independent households of brothers and sons. Drawing upon ethnographic research in Hubei province, this article sheds light onto the processes of intense negotiation underlying household strategies and articulates the dilemmas faced by female members of rural households after graduating from university. How can they best support their families while constructing a life they desire and without treading on dominant gender ideologies?

The article focuses on two cases. There is Julia, a very ambitious young woman who is determined to become successful enough to support her widowed mother and struggling brother. Julia rapidly changes jobs, always searching for a better opportunity. Julia’s mother does not agree with her daughter’s strategies, arguing that she would be better off if she focused on finding a husband. Julia works hard to prove her mother wrong, trying to make enough money to help her mother buy her brother’s “marriage house” and show her that she does not need a husband to take care of her. Misty’s case is very different, as she dreams of marrying into a family that can free her from the pressure of sustaining herself in the urban labour market. Having worked in a string of different jobs, Misty is tired of trying to make it on her own and therefore welcomes the marriage prospects introduced to her by her mother.

Analysing these cases, this article demonstrates how female university graduates from rural backgrounds navigate a social landscape in which their positions are shaped by their gender, educational achievements and rural status, as well as societal structures including marriage and labour markets. In the scholarly literature, Chinese daughters in rural households have long been discussed in the context of China’s tradition of patrilocal living and patrilinear family systems, which prescribes that young women marry into their husbands’ families. Scholars have argued that Chinese daughters keep closer ties with their natal families than is often assumed. This article has taken this argument to the next level by showing that the young women who become the first member of their families to enrol in universities provide crucial support for precariously positioned rural households, particularly in terms of financing the marriage of sons and brothers and facilitating their parents’ retirement.

The ethnographic data in this article have shed light on the intense negotiations, particularly between female members of the household, that bring about the reconfiguration of gendered household dynamics. The differences between the two cases remind us that female university graduates from rural backgrounds are not a homogeneous group. Whereas Julia works very hard to maintain her independence, Misty cannot wait to marry into a family with a strong foundation in the city. These cases, of course, represent two points on a much wider spectrum.

The Price of Aspirations: Education Migrants’ Pursuit of Higher Education in Hubei Province, China.

This article, published in the European Journal for Development Research, brings an analysis of the structural condition of China’s social transformation and higher education system into dialogue with a discussion about the goals Chinese rural youth aspire to achieve. It analyses in detail how one families’ choices in relation to their children’s education are rooted in changing land policies and how students’ rural status inhibits their success within the Chinese higher education system. It also presents research data gathered among rural high school students that shows how students’ awareness of the challenges faced by their parents shapes their motivations.

This article focuses on the strategy of Morning Sunshine’s family. It explores why Morning Sunshine, who has two older sister and one younger brother, was the only member of her family to attend high school and university, demonstrating the importance of considering the family’s economic circumstances. It also provides an ethnography of how rural-urban inequalities are reproduced in China’s system of higher education.

This article encourages critical thinking about China’s educational expansion and the role of higher education in the lives of rural youths. It puts forward stories that highlight the paradox between education as a social structure that offers hope and strengthens youth agency and a system that perpetuates and deepens rural–urban inequalities. Theoretically, this article suggests how a framework for understanding youth’s aspirations developed by Zipin et al (2015) in the context of Australia can be adjusted for the purpose of theorising youth aspirations in societies marked by rapid social transformation.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled Youth, Aspirations and the Life Course: Development and the social production of aspirations in young lives. This special issue was edited by Nicola Ansell, Peggy Froerer, and Roy Huijsmans.

Author Bio

Willy Sier is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Her PhD-research focused on rural university students in Wuhan and the role of China’s higher education system in the country’s rural-urban transformation. Currently, she works on a project on whiteness in China. To see her in action, please see her short film “Empty Home”. For a preview of her work on Covid-19, please see here. Willy can be contacted at w.m.sier@uva.nl and she tweets @WillySier.


The value of Xinjiang class education to ethnic minority students, their families and community: A capability approach

Research Highlighted:

Su, X., Harrison, N., & Moloney, R. (2020). The value of Xinjiang class education to ethnic minority students, their families and community: A capability approach. The Qualitative Report, 25(11), 3847-3863. https://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol25/iss11/5

Dr Xin Su, Henan University, China


This article illustrates how families of Xinjiang class students perceive the benefits of the Xinjiang class policy for students. Through the work of Melanie Walker, we adopted the capability approach as an analytical tool and collected data through in-depth interviews with families of Xinjiang class students over three months of fieldwork in Xinjiang and eastern China. We obtained a list of seven functional capabilities that illuminate the value of Xinjiang class education, and complaints that need to be addressed in the future. The results demonstrate how the benefits of Xinjiang class education, from a familial perspective, accrue to students, their families, as well as to the wider community. Also, the findings reveal that agency of parents is limited in this educational process. We propose that a pretransition program and improved communication between parents and teachers would facilitate better outcomes for students and their families, and ultimately result in more effective implementation of Xinjiang class policy.

The Xinjiang class policy, as part of a long-term government strategy to support interethnic relationships, and to provide ethnic minorities with access to higher education in Xinjiang, funds middle school students, mostly ethnic minorities from southern Xinjiang’s impoverished rural and nomadic regions to attend boarding schools in predominantly Han-populated cities located throughout eastern China. Research on the Xinjiang class policy has largely focused on the Uyghur-Han dichotomy, and in particular the interplay between the institutionalized authority of the state agenda and the responses of ethnic minority (especially Uyghur) students, with a small number of studies focusing on students who have graduated from Xinjiang classes. Although there are numerous critiques of Xinjiang class education regarding the discussion of its political goals over educational goals, the value of this schooling for ethnic minority students and their families has been largely overlooked, in the general discussion of how Xinjiang classes translated resources into students’ capabilities, and provided them with real opportunities and options to strive for certain achievements.

Through the Capability Approach developed by Amartya Sen, and further illustrated by Melanie Walker in the educational context, the notion of functional capabilities is used to articulate the capabilities that are fostered through education and valued by undergraduates. Functional capabilities capture the significance of both capability (opportunity) and functioning (achievement) in learning. Four overarching functional capabilities and nine subthemes consist the research finding. Specifically, families of Xinjiang class students recognize individual functional capabilities which contains valuable factors such as independence, employability and knowledge on students, after they received education in eastern China. Second, relational functional capabilities being founded in the data refer to students’ development associated with benefits to their family or ethnic community, it focuses on three dimensions including being respected and inspiring community member in terms of academic achievements, financial contribution to the family, and supporting local community members in education. Third, collective functional capabilities refer to one’s role as an agent of social change, in this sense, graduates of Xinjiang classes are keen to improve the situation of their local society. Besides all the functional capabilities fostered through Xinjiang class education, families’ complaints about limited information concerning the program, and top-down communication with school teachers is founded in the data.

Ethnic minority education in China is often viewed as promoting national integration, while ethnic minority people are viewed as passive recipients of mainstream education and its policy directives. The significance of this research lies in its attempt to involve families of Xinjiang class students into the discussion of government schooling and to voice their perspectives about Xinjiang class education, through which we present evidence showing how parents observed students developing functional capabilities through government schooling. Moreover, we find that educational mobility inevitably influences the parent-child relationship largely through the discontinuity of home and host cultures. Specifically, students are separated from their home and community for at least four years, moving strategically between different settings in their “double life,” thus positioning them as familiar strangers both at home and in schools. On the other hand, parents have high expectations in allowing their children to go-away for education, despite the fact that some lack understanding of their children’s “new” lives in inland China. Hence, the existence of silence between students and their families could not be ignored and should be included in the discussion of the long-term impact of government schooling on ethnic minority students.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Xin Su is currently a lecturer at School of Education, Henan University, Kaifeng, China. She has obtained her PhD degree from the Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University. Her research focuses on ethnic minority education in China, especially those from Xinjiang, and the interplay between family/community expectation and identity exploration. Please direct correspondence to xin.su@henu.edu.cn.

A/P Neil Harrison works at School of Education, Macquarie University. He has worked in Indigenous education as a primary, secondary and tertiary teacher, and has over 30 years of teaching and research experience in the field. Neil’s current research focuses on teaching about the experiences of trauma, and in particular teaching difficult histories.

Dr. Robyn Moloney used to teach in the Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University, and she is now a professional casual staff at Macquarie University. She is a language educator with 30 years’ experience. Robyn’s research interests include issues of intercultural language and development.


Introducing ‘Being Modern in China’ by Paul Willis

Paul Willis, author of the landmark ethnographic study, Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, has written a brand new book. This book is entitled Being Modern in China: A Western Cultural Analysis of Modernity, Tradition and Schooling in China Today. Michael Apple, perhaps channelling the thoughts of many readers, confessed his surprise upon finding this out: ‘Being Modern in China may come as a surprise to some people who are familiar with his work but are not aware that he was recently a professor at Beijing Normal University (BNU)… I too was surprised—but in a good way’ (Apple, 2020, p. 4). The interaction between schooling and social reality is the core of the analysis in this work, as it was for his previous study. The major difference is that, in this case, Willis’s focus is on contemporary China.

What is this book about?

The book is reflective of Professor Willis’s typical ethnographic style. The materials are either directly derived from, or embedded closely within, his personal experience of Chinese society. From 2014 to 2017, Willis was a Professor at a major university in Beijing. He drew on examples from his everyday lived experience of being a ‘lao wai’ (foreigner/outsider) in this Chinese mega-city to construct his book. The work is based primarily on his three field trips (to a migrant school, an NGO organization, and a remote rural village), his students’ retro-ethnographic writings that they produced as part of their course assignments, and his interpretation of relevant media content. While it is impossible to summarise all of the book’s insights in several sentences, it can be broadly understood, as Willis himself puts it, as an exploration of how ‘mesmerised modernity meets the Gaokao.’ In other words, the book considers China’s ‘quite special relationship with modernity,’ examining how this ‘future-obsessed society is simultaneously structured by and in continuous dialogue with the past, specifically in its forms and grammar, as well as in its ultra-high-stakes exam system and its culture stretching back millennia’ (Willis, 2020, pp. viii).

The book begins with the introduction of three main ‘arrows of modernity’, constituted by the ‘symbolic orders’ (as opposed to ‘material orders’) of human experience. Willis argues that these orders are characteristic of contemporary Chinese society. They include the intense veneration of the city and a corresponding hierarchy in which the city is valued more than the country; a ferocious yet moneyless sort of ‘spectral’ consumerism (e.g. consuming fancy items not by materially possessing them, but by mentally experiencing or imagining them); and the rise of an almost ‘supernaturally invested’ use of the Internet (Willis, 2020).

Subsequently, the book goes on to portray and explore the Chinese school system, with Gaokao and its associated ruthless exam system at its centre. It analyses this system in relation to the ‘arrows of modernity.’ In terms of the ‘city/country’ binary, Willis argues that success in the educational system is both materially and symbolically associated with access to the city. In this model, successful students (referred to as G-routers—G stands for Gaokao) move to the city first by attending university and then by building their livelihood through their new life in the city. These successful people may even end up bringing their families with them to the city (as one mother says to a child: ‘When you grow up, where do you want to take me?’ p. 79). Less successful students (referred to as non-G-routers) are reduced to finding an alternative, probably less dignified, path to the city (for example, by becoming migrant workers). In terms of consumerism, the G-routers who thrive in the rigorous school system develop a mentality of ‘delayed gratification’ which chains them to a dull, commodity-deprived present in exchange for the promise of a bright future. The non-G-routers, on the other hand, who have less hope of a bright future are more likely to ‘consume’ their resources fully in the present. They tend to be emersed in commercial styles, cultures and attitudes, even though, paradoxically, they will eventually be those who are most emblematic of ‘spectral’ consumerism due to their fateful lack of financial resources. As for the Internet, given the educational system’s emphasis on hard work, students are warned of the potential threat that the Internet might pose to their academic success. As a result, those who are at different ends of the school system also relate to the Internet differently. The non-G-routers use the Internet for ‘messing around’ and having fun in an immediate sense, whereas the G-routers restrict themselves to becoming ‘netizens,’ presenting their views as carrying weight in serious debates.

How is this book related to Willis’s previous work?

To compare Willis’s new book with his landmark previous study, it will first be necessary to summarize his earlier work. In Learning to Labour, Willis conducted an ethnographic investigation of the experiences of working-class students in UK context. He concluded that the subculture formed by students of working-class origins was partly responsible for them ‘choosing’ working-class jobs. Rather than resisting or challenging the unjust social order, young ‘lads’ who identify their families as ‘working class’ (rather than middle class), will tend to grow hostile towards the mainstream school system (which, after all, is geared towards the middle class). They will therefore identify even more actively with their working-class origins. This not only stops them from achieving upward social mobility through the equality supposedly provided by formal education but also encourages them to exhibit an apparent eagerness for working-class occupations—as if social reproduction is a result of individual’s willing choices.

In some ways, Being Modern in China can be seen as an extension of the basic logic of Learning to Labour. Just as the working-class ‘lads’ in 1970s Britain seem to ‘learn to labour’ willingly, the students in contemporary China (G-routers and non-G-routers alike) ‘learn’ to accept their own social status voluntarily in relation to the rapid modernisation of the wider nation by either passing or failing to pass the Gaokao. More broadly, as part of a neo-Marxist line of thinking, Being Modern in China further attests to how cultural elements retain a relative level of independence from other material and institutional factors, asserting their own power over the shaping of social destinies. In Apple’s words, this ‘constitutes a substantive contribution to the questioning of the orthodox view of economic determinism within the political economy of education’ (Apple, 2020, p. 1).

Another noteworthy and inherently interesting point is that, rather than limiting his theoretical focus (and even his emotional sympathies) to the non-conformists (as was the case in Learning to Labour), in Being Modern in China Willis observes the social world primarily through the lens of conformists. As an invited professor at a prestigious university in Beijing, Willis was, in his own words, “part and parcel” of China’s contemporary education system. More importantly, one of his most important sources of information was his daily interactions with university students, who would necessarily have been G-routers/conformists in high schools, given that they were taking his class. As a champion of social justice with a working-class background, Willis in Learning to Labour was drawn to the side of the non-conformists and the socially ‘oppressed’ almost naturally. He argued that their unique agency should be recognised. In this light, it is particularly interesting that, in Being Modern in China, he was instead emotionally invested in his own students (necessarily), who were primarily privileged conformists. This likely provided a special kind of ‘tension’.

Why should researchers in the field of educational mobility read this book?

For those who fall broadly into fields related to the sociology of education, this book explores the reproduction of the existing social order within and through people’s experiences of schooling. It also provides detailed examples of how this process is mediated by cultural practice, as well as how it intersects with the wider context of a rapidly changing, modern, and modernised society (a context that should not be seen as limited to contemporary China alone but typical of many social realities).

For those researchers who focus specifically on China, this book offers valuable insights into China’s education systems, the experiences of its students, and more. It also interrogates the Chinese character not through a top-down analysis of policies or propaganda but through people’s daily lives.

On a less formal and more personal note, for researchers who are of Chinese origin or are already very familiar with China, this book offers an opportunity to ‘turn the familiar into the strange.’ For those who are not familiar with the Chinese society, by contrast, it ‘turns the strange into the familiar.’ Finally, by blurring the boundary between academic and popular writing, Willis uses ‘poetic and forceful prose’ that ‘is a great pleasure to read’ (Xu, 2018, p. 162).

References and links

Apple, M. W. (2020). Test Scores, Identities, and Cultural Possibilities, Educational Policy. Online first. Advance online publication. 1-10. doi:10.1177/0895904820904948

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Farnborough: Saxon.

Willis, P. (2020) Being Modern in China: A Western Cultural Analysis of Modernity, Tradition and Schooling in China Today. Cambridge: Polity.

Xu, J. (2018) Being Modern in China by Paul Willis (review), China Review International 25(2): 161-165. Doi: 10.1353/cri.2018.0037


The (in)significance of race in Singapore’s immigration context: Accounts of self-differentiation by academically elite students

Research Highlighted:

Lu, L. (2020). The (In)significance of Race in Singapore’s Immigration Context: Accounts of Self-Differentiation by Academically Elite Students. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 1-18. doi:10.1080/15348458.2020.1832494

Dr Luke Lu, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

In order to counter low birthrates, the Singapore government recruits top-performing students from China and Vietnam with scholarships to augment the local talent pool. Another criterion, is that most immigrants must be ethnically Chinese, so as to fit into the nation’s majority racial group. This study examines whether and how race (or other factors) might play a part in the formation of friendships and relations amongst a group of top-performing students in Singapore. Rather than assuming the importance of race from the outset, I looked at how various aspects of identity emerge from the ways they described their school experiences and peers in interviews and focus group discussions. What I found was that instead of race, informants referred to themselves and others in terms of Singaporean-ness. They used different labels of nationality and the varying amounts of time they have spent as immigrants in Singapore to mark themselves and others as different. Most importantly, ways of speaking that showed that they were from China were seen as barriers to integration with locals.


The data I present in this paper are part of an ethnographic study I undertook in Singapore between March and December 2014. This paper focuses on two datasets. The first dataset consists of life history interviews that I conducted with 20 individuals. This was aimed at uncovering the educational pathways they undertook, as well as how they experienced life in each school they attended. The second dataset was collected while I was a participant-observer for six months in a particular peer group of 11 core members, of whom three were involved in the life history interviews. This peer group is made up of individuals who had graduated from St Thomas’ in 2011.

I focused on data when informants described their experiences in school, and talked about themselves in relation to others, for example, what and how labels of race or nationality were used in these descriptions. I then considered how the use of these labels and descriptors might be linked to wider attitudes and common stereotypes in Singapore society. The method of data analysis is based on the principles outlined by Bucholtz and Hall (2005) regarding identity, as well as Blommaert and Rampton’s (2011) approach toward investigating rather than assuming categories that individuals (dis)associate themselves from/with. In this paradigm, identity is seen to be an emergent product of linguistic practice, possibly encompassing macro-level demographic categories (e.g. race); it may be indexed through a speaker’s style, use of language forms and positioning, and is relationally constructed between self and other; it may be in part intentional, in part habitual (and less conscious), in part an outcome of negotiation and co-construction with interlocutors, in part linked to wider social structures and systems.

Key Findings

Findings suggest that labels of race were never used in their accounts. Instead, individuals tended to refer to themselves and others in terms and characterisations of Singaporean-ness.

Labels of nationality and the amount of time spent in Singapore are used to distinguish themselves and others. Negative stereotypes were most associated with immigrants from China, though informants from China also reproduced these same associations when referring to persons from China who have arrived more recently in Singapore. Crucially, practices that indicate that someone is from China are not valued and at times to be avoided, while local ways of behaving (such as using Singlish) are seen to be more important when interacting with locals. In Singapore’s context, these patterns of self-differentiation might be explained if they are seen in the light of wider discourses: (i) anti-immigrant sentiment; (ii) the status of English and Singlish in Singapore; and (iii) how styles of English are linked to notions of social class.


The state’s conceptualisation of race and ethnicity fails to recognise how overt ‘Chineseness’ is not valued in local contexts when academically elite immigrants interact with their Singaporean peers. While both groups might be identified by the state as ethnically Chinese, immigrant informants from China possess different linguistic and cultural practices from Singaporean Chinese. These different practices manifest as inequalities when transported across contexts (different spaces). My informants respond to the altered value of their original practices by adopting acceptable repertoires (English/Singlish) when interacting with locals and abandoning repertoires that index migrant status. The state’s apprehension of ethnicity – expecting that immigrants can fit in locally just because they fit official racial categories – does not consider how cultural practices are re-valued when transported to a different space. Singapore’s case offers a cautionary tale for how the transnational movement of highly-skilled and talented individuals, even when supposedly sharing similar ethnic characteristics with the local polity, is never seamless and straightforward.

Author Bio

Luke Lu is currently Lecturer at the Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He has completed a Linguistic Ethnography of academically elite students in Singapore, examining how they discursively positioned themselves to wider structures and discourses in local spaces. He is primarily interested in approaches to interactional sociolinguistics and ethnography, pertaining to issues such as transnational mobility, education, language rights, language planning and policy, and ethnicity. Luke can be contacted via lujiqun@ntu.edu.sg.


The making of transnational distinction: an embodied cultural capital perspective on Chinese women students’ mobility

Research Highlighted

Siqi Zhang & Cora Lingling Xu (2020). ‘The Making of Transnational Distinction: an Embodied Cultural Capital Perspective on Chinese Women Students’ Mobility’British Journal of Sociology of Education, p.1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2020.1804836

Watch a lecture video of this paper.

About the article

The rapid rise of international education worldwide and China’s dramatic economic development have led to a boost in Chinese students’ pursuit of transnational higher education in the UK. Statistics from the Centre for China and Globalization (CCG 2015) reports that more than 60% of the international Chinese students in Britain were female Chinese students in 2015. With the implementation of one-child policy, women’s improved position in Chinese society and family is the driving force for urban Chinese middle-class young women’s drastically rising transnational education mobility (Kajanus 2015a). Many studies focus on the visible cultural capital and students’ distinction such as the degrees which Chinese international students obtained and its conversion to job competitiveness, but less visible embodied cultural capital has been somewhat neglected in the literature of international students’ distinction. Distinction can also be problematic as mobility sometimes disrupts the advantages that are usually assumed to be linked with cross-border student mobility (Xu 2015; Xu 2017; Xu 2018a; Xu 2018b). Transnational distinction is highly relevant in an age when western degree inflation intersects with harsh gender expectations for Chinese women student migrants, a significant group of players in the scene of UK higher education. As there are rising numbers of women Chinese students participating in the flow of transnational educational mobility, it appears crucial to investigate how Chinese women students studying in the UK negotiate their positioning, especially in relation to how they construct their own distinction to justify their transnational education moves. This article aims to address these research questions: How does transnational student mobility from China to the UK still bestow these women students’ ‘distinction’ against the backdrop of ‘Western degree inflation’ in China’s labour market? More explicitly, when Chinese women students claim distinction from gaining a UK degree, what is the significance of such transnational student flows that result from such a search for distinction?

This research applied a mixed qualitative methodology including participant observation and semi-structured interviews in a British university. Participant observations were conducted in diverse students’ social activities. Meanwhile, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 25 participants during the fieldwork. We find that upon entering a new transnational HE field, most participants expressed a strong disappointment and even depression when their middle-class social status was overridden by their status as ‘racialised migrants’ (Cui 2015). Most participants felt that their middle-class social status, social network and family resources in China were cut off due to transnational mobility. The transnational education mobility seems to diminish the likelihood of converting their possessed capitals into a desired distinctive status in this new transnational HE field (Xu 2017). However, it was shared by most participants that distinction can be achieved through accumulating embodied cultural capital, namely, the absorption of new gendered practice. Their distinction is reflected from their active comparison with their Chinese peers and their peers studying in the US on the basis of the new embodied acquisition of global cultural taste obtained from the cultural opportunities/consumption that transnational mobility offered. Some participants perceived that performing locally accepted middle-class British made them feel more recognised in this transnational HE field. Meanwhile, most of the participants embodied increasing global cultural tastes through frequenting exhibitions, museums and galleries in their spare time. However, participants’ interpretation of ‘British local middle class’ or ‘embodied higher taste’ was restricted to their perception because of the mixture of their middle-class taste and their taste for popular mass culture. We also find that Chinese women students’ choices of returning to their home country after graduation were also strongly affected by the gender norms in home country, participants feel that their absorption of new gendered disposition of mind was restricted when taking her final destination into consideration.

We argue that these students’ transnational distinction can be contingent upon the fields where they perceived they were/would be in, the mixture of what embodied cultural capital they have actually obtained and which peer groups they compared themselves with. In these students’ attempts to mark their transnational distinction, they displayed notably uninformed understanding of the complex racial/ethnic and class fabrics of the British society. Such a partial frame of understanding in relation to the host society had induced a mixture of results, including their heightened sense of marginalisation and their romanticised ascription of cultural superiority over peers studying in other popular destinations. But it still took time for students to ascertain what newly acquired cultural capital and disposition of mind to maintain when the field is about to change. Therefore, we argue that the distinction achieved during transnational student mobility is field-specific and educational mobility can both relegate their social status as well as elevate their middle-class distinction under certain circumstances. There still exist complexity to their realisation of distinction.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Siqi Zhang, University of Edinburgh

Siqi Zhang (PhD) is a teaching fellow in Moray House School of Education and Sport at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD research explores the ways in which gender and cultural capital are closely linked with international students’ transnational educational choices and their transnational study experiences during their stay in a Scottish university. Her research interests include sociology of education, gender, cultural capital, transnational educational mobility, social inequality in education and student experience in international higher education. She can be contacted via siqi.zhang@ed.ac.uk; Twitter: @_Siqi_Zhang.

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu

Dr Cora Lingling Xu, Durham University

Dr Cora Lingling Xu (PhD Cambridge, FHEA) is Assistant Professor at Durham University, UK. Her research interests include educational mobilities, identities and social theories. She has researched cross-border student and academic migration, ethnic minority and rurality topics within contemporary Chinese societies. She is an editorial board member of the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Cambridge Journal of Education and International Studies in Sociology of Education. She is founder and director of Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities. She has more than a dozen publications in journals such as The Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology of Education, International Studies in Sociology of Education, Time and Society,  and European Educational Research Journal. You can access her publications here. She can be contacted via Email: lingling.xu@durham.ac.uk; Twitter: CoraLinglingXu.


Learning to ‘tell China’s story well’: the constructions of international students in Chinese higher education policy

Research Highlighted

Mulvey, B., & Lo, W. Y. W. (2020). Learning to ‘tell China’s story well’: the constructions of international students in Chinese higher education policy. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1-13. doi:10.1080/14767724.2020.1835465

Our goal in this study was to understand how international students are constructed in Chinese policy texts, using a policy-as-discourse approach. We draw out the nuances and possible internal contradictions of policy texts and the various ways students’ roles are represented within them, by taking a discursive approach which is rarely used in studies on international student mobility policy, with a few exceptions (see Riaño, Mol, and Raghuram 2018b). A critical discussion of the ethical dimensions of Chinese higher education internationalisation is not present in the existing literature (e.g. Pan 2013; Zhu and Zhang, 2017; Ma and Zhou 2018; Liu and Wang 2020), despite the rapid rise of China as a destination for international students. As such, we outline the discursive constructions of the roles of international students in national policy texts and discuss these constructions in relation to a body of critical approaches to internationalisation that has developed with reference to Western internationalisation (e.g. George Mwangi et al. 2018).

In terms of the approach taken to analysing the data, we draw on the important work of Lomer (2017a) who applies a policy-as-discourse analysis to national policies in the UK. This approach can be described as broadly Foucauldian, in that discourses are seen as socially produced forms of knowledge which limit and shape what it is possible to think or express about social practices (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016).

The major themes we found in our analysis are as follows: (i) students as para-diplomats, (ii) students as a point of mutual exchange, (iii) students as future elites, (iv) students as of insufficient quality, (v) students as a potential public security threat. The dominant representation of students uncovered through the thematic analysis conceives of students as tools for the realisation of China’s foreign policy goals. This construction of students’ roles is common in other contexts such as the UK, the USA, and Canada (e.g. Wilson 2014; Trilokekar 2015; Lomer 2017a). For example, Wilson highlights how scholarship programmes in the West, such as the Fulbright and Colombo programmes (Sidhu 2006; Tran and Vu 2018) often portray international students as playing the role of a ‘para-diplomat’. However, in these contexts, the para-diplomat construction appears to have become less dominant over time, with neoliberal constructions of students becoming more common as a result of the ‘aid to trade’ (Stein and de Andreotti 2016) shift in higher education. This is in contrast to Chinese policy texts, where the construction of students as para-diplomats is primary and the recruitment of students is not undergirded by economic considerations.

The narrative of students as para-diplomats appears to change subtly over time, as international student recruitment is referenced in relation to China’s grand strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (e.g. MOE, 2017c; MOFCOM, 2018). This ‘outward’ shift is reflected in policy documents released since the inception of the BRI which increasingly employ a discourse of ‘mutual understanding’ between China and BRI countries through ISM (MOE 2019a). Indeed, a stated goal of the BRI is to ‘strengthen exchanges and mutual learning between different civilizations’ (BRI 2020). Policy texts also appear to suggest that to achieve the desired outcome of improved international relations from the recruitment of students, said students recruited by Chinese universities should not be ordinary members of their home societies. For example, the 13th five-year plan for the development of national education calls for the ‘strengthening the cultivation of elites’ through international education (MOE 2017d), and a press release on the Belt and Road Initiative includes a quote from Xu Tao, Director of the Department of International Cooperation and Exchange in the MOE, who emphasises that a goal of China’s international student recruitment is to ‘cultivate high-level talented individuals’ and to ‘train young elites and future leaders in developing countries’ (MOE 2017a).

The analysis also uncovered a theme which is present in documents from 2018 onwards: the suggestion that the ‘quality’ of international students should be improved, implying, contradictorily, that students are not future elites who are highly likely to go onto positions of influence. For example, it is suggested that ‘University admissions departments … should guarantee and continuously improve the quality of international students’ (MOE 2018b). This calls into question the idea that China is recruiting international students who will go on to become societal elites able to act as ‘interpreters’ of China in their home country (Scott-Smith 2008). Recent research, which reports that universities in China needed to lower entrance requirements in order to recruit more international students, echoes this finding (Song 2018; Liu and Wang 2020).

The final theme highlighted in this article is one in which international students are presented as requiring guidance in order to understand and obey Chinese laws. This theme echoes Ho’s (2017, 26) finding that some international students perceived that administrators were concerned with the ‘moral degradation’ of domestic students through contact with international students. This theme also emerged after 2018, possibly in response to the perceived problem of international students ‘misbehaviour’, several instances of which were reported in Chinese state-controlled media (Yan 2019). This led to an unnamed MOE official stating that universities ‘should seriously punish foreign students if they violate those rules’ in the state media outlet People’s Daily (Yan 2019). It is likely that the emerging policy construction of students as potential security threats is related to these developments. In other words, this policy is framed as a solution to the ‘problem’ of unruly international students constructed through policy discourse.

In the conclusion of this article, we seek to reflect on these findings in a critical light. We suggest that interaction between sending and host countries within the Global South clearly offers opportunities for re-thinking the fundamentally exploitative and imbalanced relationships which inform discourses contained within ISM policy in the Global North. A discourse of mutual exchange has emerged in Chinese policy texts, which seems to be fundamentally opposed to the constructions of students as valuable to the extent that they are economically or politically useful, which appear to reproduce those found in the Global North. The narrative associated with the BRI seems to hint at a move towards the kind of internationalisation conceived of in ‘soft’ critiques of internationalisation. For example, literature on global public goods often calls for a conceptualisation of internationalisation based around notions of ‘win-win’ (Marginson 2007, 331) and ‘shared prosperity’ (Stein 2017, 13) echoing the narrative of ‘mutual exchange’ in BRI related ISM policy discourse. However, policy discourses are often contradictory (e.g. O’Connor 2018), and in this case, Chinese ISM policy discourse also presents international education as a resource for securing national (geo)political advantage, and international students variously as politically docile tools for securing this national advantage and as future elites, and at same time as academically and morally deficient, and as a public security risk, effectively undermining the narrative of mutual civilisational exchange.

Mr Ben Mulvey, Education University of Hong Kong

Ben Mulvey is a PhD candidate at the Education University of Hong Kong. Ben’s research focuses on educational migration between Africa and China, and what this student flow reveals about China’s attempts to (re)shape the global “field” of higher education. He can be contacted via the following email address: bmulvey@s.eduhk.hk

Listen to an interview with Ben Mulvey; Read the summary of Ben’s interview

Read Ben’s other entries here, here and here.

Dr William Lo, Education University of Hong Kong

William Lo is an Associate Professor and the Associate Head of the Department of International Education at the Education University of Hong Kong. His research areas include higher education policy and comparative and international higher education, with a focus on East Asia. He has published more than 50 articles, chapters, books, and special journal issues. He serves as an Associate Editor for Asian Pacific Journal of Education and Higher Education Evaluation and Development. He holds a PhD in social policy from the University of Bristol.


Competing for privilege –Aspirational youth at a Chinese high school entrepreneurship competition

Research Highlighted

Chen, S. (2020). Competing for privilege –aspirational youth at a Chinese high school entrepreneurship competition. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 1-16. doi:10.1080/01425692.2020.1836475

  • Watch a video on this paper.
  • Dr Siyu Chen, Harbin Institute of Technology (Shenzhen), China


    The recent expansion and diversification of the overseas education market in China have given birth to the so-called “Background Promotion Projects” that help elite university aspirants elevate their application backgrounds. Based on ethnographic findings of a Chinese high school entrepreneurship competition, one of such programs, this study analyzes how prospective applicants to Western elite universities learned “the art of aspiration” by constructing and performing entrepreneurial subjectivities. Building a link between Arjun Appadurai’s concept of “the capacity to aspire” and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s theory of “the aspirational class,” this study reveals how the deepening social stratification in China and the rise of a global meritocracy reinforce each other. Demonstrating how privilege is consolidated and justified through the (re)production of aspirations, this study further contributes to the theorization of class reproduction and education at a time of post-industrial change and international mobility.


    Situating a high school entrepreneurship competition in the context of Chinese globalization and industrial upgrade, this ethnographic study offers a glimpse into the overseas education service where different capitals – the material, social and cultural – are mobilized for the (re)production of aspirational subjectivities through the performances of entrepreneurship. Examining the preparatory stage of student migration, this study reveals how deepening social stratification in China and the rise of a global meritocracy reinforce each other in the transnationalized production of inequality.

    Theoretical framework

    This study builds a link between Elizabeth Currid-Halkett (2017) theory of “the aspirational class” and Arjun Appadurai’s (2013) concept of “the capacity to aspire”. Termed by Currid-Halkett (2017) as the “aspirational class”, the new elite class elevated with the ascendance of a new post-industrial economy. One of the most telling consumption habits that set them apart from other social groups is their (increasingly) heavy investment in their children’s education (ibid). Currid-Halkett’s notion of the “aspirational class” also applies to the Chinese context where a shift from a labour-intensive industry to a knowledge-based economy is taking place. Similar to their American counterparts, the new elite in China have stepped up their investment in education with the goal of sending their children to elite universities in developed countries.

    The selection criteria used at these elite universities are based on a meritocracy paradigm that values a proven track record of achievements that signal sophistication, talent and intellectual promise (Liu 2011). Such aspirations and experiences align with the shared values of the aspirational class, and familiarity with these cultural values and social practices is closely related to what Appadurai terms “the capacity to aspire”. According to Appadurai, aspirations as cultural capacities are “formed in interaction and in the thick of social life” (2013, 187) and are closely related to local ideas and beliefs (Appadurai 2013). Seen from this perspective, the high school entrepreneurship competition, in a Bourdieuian sense, is part of an overseas education pipeline that enhances the students’ capacity to aspire globally.


    This competition is held once every semester break in Shenzhen. I conducted my ethnographic study on two occasions: 13–17 July 2017, and 22–25 February 2018. I compensated for the short duration of the field study by employing a mix of data collection methods, including interviews, focus groups and onsite and participant observations. I conducted semi-structured interviews with 28 out of 57 participants in total. Informants were recruited by way of snowball sampling, starting with those with whom I became acquainted during the competition and extending to their team members. I also conducted focus group studies with the organizers of the competition, as well as with the advisors, coaches, judges and parents of the competition participants.

    Ethnographic findings

    The competition not only discouraged the participants’ fixation on conspicuous consumption, but it also attempted to cultivate the contestants’ cultural omnivorousness. As a marked feature of the aspirational class, such an eclectic cultural preference is a new form of cultural capital that reflects education and comfort in diverse environments (Currid-Halkett 2017), which provides advantages in an open world (Hanquinet, Roose, and Savage 2014). Besides, participants’ display of their ease in and enjoyment of the gruelling competition was a manifestation of cultivated talent acquired through long, sophisticated training as well as a validation of their elite positions. Moreover, the competition was a social event where young aspirants met and networked with peers, educators, experienced entrepreneurs and potential investors. In this process, participants engage in a mode of interaction that reflects privileges and advantages in social life. Last but not least, the competition enabled applicants to build up a track record of extracurricular achievements conducive to their future study and work.


    The preparatory services provided by overseas education agencies, as a form of concerted cultivation, not only prepare applicants to navigate the admission systems of elite schools, but also enhance their capacity to aspire by offering a continuing record of individuated and skill-based experiences. Acquiring the mindset and practical discipline of a “strategic cosmopolitan” (Mitchell 2003, 387), the participants equip themselves in ways that suit the imperatives of the global labour market. For this young aspirational class, with their prospective elite educational credentials, transnational mobility and understanding, knowledge of and social connections in the global labour market, “desire tends to inform possibility: what is imagined is simply made possible” (Sellar and Gale 2011). Their less-privileged peers, who are absent from these types of high school entrepreneurship opportunities, however, may as well be “out” of the global economic arena.


    Appadurai, A. (2013). “The Future as Cultural Fact.” In Essays on the Global Condition. London: Verso.

    Currid-Halkett, E. (2017). The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Hanquinet, L., H. Roose, and M. Savage. (2014). “The Eyes of the Beholder: Aesthetic Preferences andthe Remaking of Cultural Capital.” Sociology 48 (1): 111–132.

    Liu, A. (2011). “Unraveling the Myth of Meritocracy within the Context of US Higher Education.” Higher Education 62 (4): 383–397.

    Mitchell, K. (2003). “Educating the National Citizen in Neoliberal Times: From the Multicultural Self to the Strategic Cosmopolitan.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 28 (4): 387–403.

    Sellar, S., and T. Gale. (2011). “Mobility, Aspiration, Voice: A New Structure of Feeling for Student Equity in Higher Education.” Critical Studies in Education 52 (2): 115–134.

    Author Biography

    Dr. Siyu Chen works as an assistant professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Harbin Institute of Technology (Shenzhen). She is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work spans the fields of creative industries, education, urban studies and media studies. Her research examines the mutually constitutive nature of social practices, modes of power, and the intersections of multiple axes of identity, including place, gender and class. She is the winner of the Theodore C. Bestor Prize for Best Graduate Paper on the Anthropology of East Asia 2015 and the Asian Anthropology Best Paper Award 2017. She can be contacted via siyu.chen06@gmail.com.

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  • Featured

    The Role of Theory in Qualitative Research: Insights from Studies on Chinese International Students in Higher Education

    Research Highlighted

    Heng, T. T. (2020). The Role of Theory in Qualitative Research: Insights from Studies on Chinese International Students in Higher Education. Journal of International Students. doi:https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v10i4.1571

    Dr Tang T. Heng, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


    Given the historic high in international student numbers in higher education institutions worldwide, research on international students has likewise kept up with the growth. However, scholars observe that research in both higher education and international students lacks theoretical engagement and exhibits narrow epistemological framing. Drawing on Tight’s (2004) and Abdullah et. al’s (2014) approach, this article examined 43 qualitative research articles about Chinese international students to investigate the role of theory in influencing research designs, aims, and findings. Using research on Chinese international students as an analytic example, this study found that twenty-eight percent of the articles lacked theoretical engagement, and that acculturation and sociocultural theories were most popular. Further, more than half of the articles focused on Chinese international students’ challenges, in contrast to their changes or agentic potential. These findings are discussed in light of the implicit assumptions scholars make, with the conclusion that there is an urgent need for scholars to grow, diversify, and create theories relating to research on international students.


    Theory in research is defined as “a set of concepts and the proposed relationships among these, a structure that is intended to represent or model something about the world” (Maxwell, 2005, p. 42). Typically, research studies are guided by a theoretical or conceptual framing that draws on relevant theories and ideas—with their attendant assumptions—to inform research design, focus, method(s), and, eventually, data analysis. Other than framing research, theories can also be generated, for instance, through the grounded theory technique (Strauss & Corbin, 1994). Theoretical or conceptual frameworks are closely bound to the researcher’s paradigm, which, in turn, is shaped by the researcher’s personality, experiences, culture, and external environment. Qualitative educational research, in particular, thus is assumed to be value-laden (Lather, 1992; Pillow, 2003).

    Theoretical engagement in qualitative research is essential. Without it, studies have limited reach and a field’s maturation can be inhibited (Abdullah et al., 2014; Kuhn, 1970; Rocco & Plakhotnik, 2009). Yet, Tight (2004) found that more than half of higher education research is atheoretical. Likewise, Abdullah et al. (2014) found 66% of articles on international students reflected low theoretical engagement and attributed this to the peripheral and economic lens through which international students are frequently viewed. As both studies offered macro perspectives around the issue of theory, this article drew on the method of both studies to offer a more intimate analysis of the theory-research nexus in the literature on Chinese international students. Chinese international students are used as an analytic case as they are the largest source of international students worldwide.


    Taking reference from Tight’s (2004) and Abdullah et al.’s (2014) research approach, a literature review was conducted on Chinese international students in 16 higher education journals. Included in the review was qualitative research articles between 2005 and 2017 that involved more than 50% Chinese international students as participants, and that focused on their experiences. Forty three articles were analysed for general publication trends, method/ologies, degree of theoretical explicitness (implicit, some, explicit), research focus, and theoretical perspectives.


    General publication, method, participant, and location trends

    There was a growing number of research on Chinese international students with 67% of the articles published after 2010. Interview was the most popular data collection method (84%), followed by descriptive survey (39%), and focus group (14%). More studies involved graduate students (47%) as opposed to undergraduate (19%). The largest proportion of studies was located in the United Kingdom (26%), followed by the United States (16%) and Australia (16%), New Zealand (12%), and Canada (9%).

    Theoretical engagement

    Thirty nine percent of the articles was theoretically explicit, 33% provided some evidence, and 28% was theoretically implicit. The most popular theories were sociocultural theories (39%) and acculturation theories (33%).

    Theory-research focus nexus

    Sixty percent of the articles focused primarily on challenges or issues faced by Chinese international students, with 38% of these articles offering an extended explanation for the challenges. Articles published after 2010 were more predisposed to acknowledging students’ agency (59%). Research using sociocultural theories tended to feature students’ agency more than those using acculturation theories.


    Only 39% of articles on Chinese international students explicitly used theories to frame the research or engaged deeply in theoretical discussions, highlighting, again, the marginalized role of theory in research. Low theoretical engagement in research could spell implications for research design. For instance, the aggregation of undergraduates with graduates reveals an assumption that the experiences of these two groups are similar (but are they?) and the under-utilization of methods like reflections and action research may suggest that scholars assume Chinese international students are to be researched on (but not with?). That most research tended to focus on students’ challenges (60%) as opposed to changes/agency (40%) invites us to ponder what assumptions we hold around Chinese international students and how research may unknowingly perpetuate implicit bias around them. Further, that research using acculturation theories appear less predisposed to examine student agency may reveal the underlying assumption of the theory that adaptation to a dominant culture is ideal. This holds consequences for how international students are portrayed—as meeting, or not, the standards of their new environment—possibly illuminating hidden assumptions we make of Chinese (and other) international students.

    In sum, this article invites us to reflect on the assumptions scholars make in their choice of theory, the assumptions a theory is premised on, as well as the consequences of chosen theories on international student research. Such reflexivity can guard against narrow ways of researching and knowing, and are essential in elevating research and helping the international student field mature.


    Abdullah, D., Abd Aziz, M. I., & Mohd Ibrahim, A. L. (2014). A “research” into international student-related research: (Re)visualising our stand? Higher Education, 67(3), 235–253. doi:10.1007/s10734-013-9647-3

    Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press.

    Lather, P. (1992). Critical frames in educational research: Feminist and poststructural perspectives. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 87–99.

    Maxwell, J. A. (2005). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach. SAGE.

    Pillow, W. (2003). Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(2), 175–196.

    Rocco, T. S., & Plakhotnik, M. S. (2009). Literature reviews, conceptual frameworks, and theoretical frameworks: Terms, functions, and distinctions. Human Resource Development Review, 8(1), 120–130.

    Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1994). Grounded theory methodology: An overview. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 273–285). SAGE.

    Tight, M. (2004). Research into higher education: An atheoretical community of practice? Higher Education Research & Development, 23(4), 395–411.

    Author Bio

    Tang T. Heng is an Assistant Professor at the Nanyang Technological University—National Institute of Education. By studying what happens when people and ideas circulate across borders, she highlights issues related to diversity and education through a comparative and international education lens. Concurrently, her research foregrounds the role sociocultural contexts play in shaping the values and behaviors of learners/teachers, and how they adapt to different contexts. Tang was conferred the Comparative and International Education Society’s Study Abroad and International Students SIG Early Career Award in 2019. Her research has been published in international refereed journals like Journal of Studies in International Education and Studies in Higher Education. She can be reached via email at tangtang.heng@nie.edu.sg.


    The micro-politics of cultural change: A Chinese doctoral student’s learning journey at an Australian university

    Research Highlighted:

    Dai, K., & Hardy, I. (2020). The micro-politics of cultural change: a Chinese doctoral student’s learning journey in Australia. Oxford Review of Education, 1-17. DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2020.1825369

    Read about Kun’s other publication here.

    Dr Kun Dai, Peking University, China


    Considerable research has investigated Chinese students’ intercultural insights in different national contexts, where culture is understood as coterminous with nationality/regionality. However, few have explored the more micro-political aspects of Chinese doctoral students’ narrative experiences in national settings, within a more cultural framework. This article seeks to take such an approach through a reflexive narrative account of the first author’s experiences as a Chinese doctoral student in Australia. To do so, we draw upon Bhabha’s notion of “in-between space”, and work by Gill on intercultural adjustment. We show how the first author’s doctoral journey was characterised by a sense of “in-betweenness” at the micro-political level, including in relation to the cultural boundary crossing associated with having to change fields of study and supervisors. This narrative provides a nuanced account of an international student’s experiences and reflects the usefulness of examining the particularity of international doctoral students’ learning experiences at a much more fine-grained level, via a more intercultural lens.


    Doctoral education is a significant part of the HE system and doctoral students are also one of the major groups contributing substantively to creativity and innovation in knowledge, which productively influences the development of society (Shin, Postiglione, & Ho, 2018). At the same time, when international doctoral students encounter different academic and sociocultural contexts, they experience complex changes to their identity, with attendant changes to their sense of agency as diasporic academics (Lee & Elliot, 2020). As part of this journey, vacillating between the standpoints of being a more independent and dependent learner, as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) candidate, can be associated with senses of both empowerment and disempowerment (Goode, 2007). Thus, doctoral students’ learning experiences can be very diverse, so it is necessary to understand the specificity of the circumstances within which these students conduct their research in different educational contexts (Pearson et al., 2011). To contribute to scholarship in this field, we illustrate and analyse the first author’s experiences as an international doctoral student at an Australian university, and how specific micro-political intercultural issues that he faced during his journey influenced his learning through this experience.

    Research Method

    This study adopts notions of intercultural adjustment, especially Gill’s (2007) analysis of Chinese students’ transformative learning framework. Furthermore, Bhabha’s (1994) concept of in-between space was used to examine the fluidity of the first author’s experiences through a more critical lens. To tell the story of this positioning in various in-between spaces of intercultural adjustment as part of the first author’s doctoral journey, we draw upon a reflexive narrative approach. In this study, we adopted narrative as the method to frame the data analysis. At the same time, we recognise that the first author’s story/ies is/are not simply a product of his “own” understandings of the world, but also the result of the broader conditions within which his story/ies become comprehensible. By adopting these approaches, we were able to critically and reflexively examine his experiences whilst maintaining confidentiality.


    The narrative started with illustrating the first author’s doctoral research journey in a cross-disciplinary context from Digital Media to Education. As he has studied in Australia for about three years, he felt confident in this initial stage even though he changed his focus from digital media to educational technology. After starting his journey, he gradually realized that he might not get proper supervision, and then he worried about his research. However, dramas always happened. His supervisors left the university, and he had no choice but to change supervision teams. Due to the differences between his research focus and the new supervisor’s expertise, while they worked together and attempted to make his study better, his research was still not on the right track. In the third-year assessment, internal panel members still questioned his research. After this assessment, change happened again. Unfortunately, the new supervisor needed to retire due to personal reason and left the university. In this case, he felt so disempowered and lacked the confidence to complete the study. Luckily, he found new supervisors to support him. Although research topics have been changed due to the shift of supervisions teams, he did not give up and finally completed the study. When he reflected his journey, he felt that the doctoral journey is a process of shaping a sense of in-betweenness: shifting between different research fields, topics, and supervision teams.


    Based on the first author’s ‘zigzag ‘doctoral learning experience, this study reveals that his PhD journey positioned him in an in-between space where he was constantly immersed in a cycle of stress-adaptation-development, and where he established a sense of in-betweenness, characterised by different senses of agency, identity, and belonging. In these arrangements, power was always at play. Various predictable (e.g. change of majors) and unpredictable changes (e.g. changes of advisors) dynamically and constantly positioned him within different power dynamics. The interaction between intercultural adjustment model and the concept of in-between space shed light on this learning transition, particularly in relation to the micro-politics of cultural change that surrounded the forms of cross-disciplinary academic cultural adaptation he had to undertake in his journey. Importantly, they also flag the significant power relations more broadly that infused his whole doctoral journey. His reactions to the changes indicate a resilience towards expected and unexpected adversities as well as the effects of such power relations.

    His journey suggests that he was in the stress-adaptation-development trajectory, but in a very different way from how such a trajectory is conceptualised in existing literature. It could not only be adopted in the analysis of more typical nationally/regionally based intercultural learning and adjustment, but also could be used as a lens to theorise and analyse more micro-political processes of learning trajectories. Moreover, his PhD research trajectory indicated he was ultimately able to become a self-determined and active agent (Marginson, 2014) but this process was tortuous with many twists and turns, establishing a complex sense of in-betweenness in response to different expected and unpredictable changes. His experience indicates that he was immersed in a unique in-between space that was created by constant negotiations between colonising and colonised cohorts, complicated relations of power, and various clashes in and between different types of “cultures”, which potentially shape individual hybridity and sense of in-betweenness.

    This study revealed that as a result of the first author’s peculiar cross-disciplinary academic cultural adaptation, he became an in-betweener at not just the macro level of culture, but at a micro-political level. In this particular space, he had to navigate twists and turns in different stages of the learning journey which was not a straightforward process of stress-adaptation-development as some other studies have found. In contrast, his journey was a pathway of continuous processes of stress, adapting and development, characterised by a more or less continuous sense of in-betweenness in relation to each of these states. His experiences certainly confirm doctoral learning and research journeys as complicated rather than linear. However, students may engage in multi-faceted and complex journeys, far beyond what might be anticipated.

    Authors’ bios:

    Dr Kun Dai is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Funded by China International Postdoc Exchange Program) at Graduate School of Education, Peking University. His research focuses on transnational higher education, international students mobility, intercultural learning and adjustment, teaching and learning in higher education.

    Dr Ian Hardy is an Associate Professor at the School of Education, University of Queensland, Australia. Dr Hardy’s research focuses on educational policy, globalisation, and teacher education.


    “Decentring” international student mobility: The case of African student migrants in China

    Research Highlighted:

    Mulvey, B. (2020). “Decentring” international student mobility: The case of African student migrants in China. Population, Space and Place, n/a(n/a), e2393. doi:10.1002/psp.2393

    Listen to an interview with Ben Mulvey; Read the summary of Ben’s interview

    Read Ben’s other entries here and here.

    Mr Ben Mulvey, Education University of Hong Kong

    A higher proportion of African tertiary students are globally mobile than in any other region, with approximately six percent undertaking higher education outside their home country (Kritz, 2015). At the same time, China hosts the second greatest number of African international students of any country, and African students are the second largest regional grouping of international students in China – there were 81,562 students from all 54 African countries studying in China in 2018. The development of China as a major destination country for African students and the growth of outbound international student mobility amongst African students are both emergent phenomena. This partly explains the lack of empirical research on this student flow, and why the bulk of research on international student mobility focuses on major sending countries in East Asia and destinations in the West. The result of the focus on “Rest” to “West” student flows in international student mobility is that existing theory around students’ mobility decisions, largely developed with reference to these student flows, are insufficient to explain some forms of South-South mobility. In this presentation, based on empirical research consisting of 40 interviews conducted with African students in Chinese universities, I analyse the decision-making processes of this group of student migrants, and explore how this new knowledge challenges existing conceptual understandings of the nature of international student mobility (ISM).

    An outcome of the article is that it draws attention to under-acknowledged unequal dynamics within the Global South. I seek to situate Africa-China educational migration within the broader context of the globalisation and the global regime of coloniality, incorporating structural power relations into an analysis of student migrants’ decision making. The research aims are as follows: firstly, to understand the logics underpinning African students’ decisions to study abroad in China, and secondly, to explore how these logics may be shaped by structural forces.

    In terms of the theoretical approach, this paper is concerned with how ISM is embedded within a global regime of coloniality (e.g. Grosfoguel, 2010; Mignolo, 2013). Whilst there are a number of articles (e.g. Madge et al., 2009; Stein and de Andreotti, 2016; Ploner and Nada, 2019) which examine various facets of ISM through a postcolonial lens, the approach has been developed in a very limited way. I pay particular attention to how global structural inequalities shape student decision-making, answering calls by Kelly and Lusis (2006) and others for an approach to migration studies which incorporates global structures of inequality and power into the analysis, applying an innovative approach to educational migration in the Global South specifically, thus making a theoretical contribution to the ISM literature.

    Grosfoguel (2010) describes how peripheral nation-states exist under a regime of global coloniality, as non-core zones continue to exist in conditions of coloniality despite the end of formal colonialism. This is fundamentally because the exploitative global division of labour which developed as a result of colonialism is reproduced in the “postcolonial” capitalist world-system (Wallerstein, 2004). It is obvious that this global regime shapes South-to-North migration patterns, and as such postcolonial approaches to analysing labour migration are well established. For example San Juan (2011) and Eder (2016) describe how low income countries such as the Philippines become reservoirs of cheap labour and Western countries its’ clients, reproducing colonial asymmetrical relationships. Less well developed in the literature however is the notion that firstly, migrations within the Global South, and secondly, migration for educational purposes, entrenched within the same global system, can be viewed through this lens.

    I give four main examples of how mobility between Africa and China is mediated by global structural forces, arguing that doing so deepens understanding of the structural drivers of student migration, and of the mechanisms through which international student mobility is related to inequality. African students have a wide variety of rationales for seeking overseas study, usually influenced in some way by China’s structural position within the (post)colonial global political economy, and by China’s reproduction of core-periphery relations in its interactions with Africa. Empirically the article makes a significant contribution to the literature by outlining four cases of student mobility decision-making which differ from those outlined in existing literature. Some are from outside the middle-class, and are able to leverage China’s soft power gambit to go beyond their “field of the possibles”. Others are pawns in China’s political manoeuvring, and are essentially forced into studying overseas by their own government. Most, unsurprisingly, appear to be middle-class. I note however that these students are not necessarily members of the affluent “global” middle class (e.g. Koo, 2016), and are excluded from the “best” educational migration opportunities in the West by the unequal distribution of capital afforded by the global (post)colonial political economy. A minority of students are social elites who are able to leverage social networks in order to take advantage of China’s courting of the political class across Africa. This example again demonstrates how China’s semi-peripheral position is reproduced in its relation with African nations (as peripheries), and in turn how this creates discrepant logics of migration. All of these examples demonstrate how China’s ambiguous political and economic relationship Africa, borne out of its position within the postcolonial world system, serve to create logics of migration that cannot be easily explained using existing frameworks which tend to be quite simplistic in their assumptions about who moves and to what ends.

    Author bio

    Ben Mulvey is a PhD candidate at the Education University of Hong Kong. Ben’s research focuses on educational migration between Africa and China, and what this student flow reveals about China’s attempts to (re)shape the global “field” of higher education. He can be contacted via the following email address: bmulvey@s.eduhk.hk


    Language of the future or national threat? Unpacking the discourses of teaching and learning Chinese in Australian schools

    Research Highlighted:

    Weinmann, M., Slavich, S. & Neilsen R. (forthcoming 2021). ‘Multiculturalism and the “broken” discourses of Chinese language education’, In: Halse, C. & Kennedy, K. (eds.). The future of multiculturalism in turbulent times. Asia-Europe Education Dialogue series, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

    The context of Chinese language education in Australia

    Mandarin Chinese has a unique place in Australian society. As China is Australia’s key trading partner, the teaching of  Mandarin has received significant government support (Chen, 2015), especially as Australian schooling policy highlights the importance of language learning for future global citizens (Council of Australian Governments, 2019). Chinese also has the highest number of speakers in the Australian population after English, and is widely taught in Australian schools (Orton, 2016). However, despite the accolades, learners from non-Chinese backgrounds often feel demotivated for two reasons: the relative difficulty of Mandarin compared to cognate European languages (Scarino et al., 2011), and their perceived disadvantage compared to their classmates of Chinese heritage (Chen & Fletcher, 2016).

    The same tropes of ‘hope, hype and fear’ (Duff et al., 2015, p. 139) that frame the teaching of Mandarin in Australia are also reflected in recent media and professional teacher conversations around popular discourses of Chinese language education. In order to tease out these complexities, our study followed a mediated discourse research approach (Scollon & Scollon, 2004), which is ‘grounded in the notion that human action is accomplished through discourse as it appears in many forms, whether talk, a wide range of hard copy and digital texts, mental representations of texts from the near or distant past and potential futures’ (Roozen & Erickson, 2017, p. 2.03).

    Data sources

    We drew on two studies investigating recent perspectives on the teaching and learning of languages in Australian schools. In the first, we analysed how Chinese (Mandarin) language programs and policy rationales had been represented in mainstream Australian print media between 2012—when the now-archived Asian Century White Paper (Australian Government, 2012) was released—and 2017.

    In the second study, we interviewed languages teachers from Victoria, Australia, for their perspectives about the implementation of the National Curriculum (Languages). Here we draw on one group interview with two teachers of Asian languages: ‘Stephanie’, Head of Languages at a Catholic secondary school in metropolitan Melbourne and a teacher of Japanese, and ‘Eric’, who works at an independent Foundation–Grade 12 college. He also holds a leadership position in Languages, and teaches Chinese, his native language.

    Thematic analysis was used for both studies (Nowell et al., 2017). We began by grouping the selected articles in terms of the socio-historical and political discourses that they represented or challenged regarding China and Chinese language learning, followed by a close analysis of textual features. For the interview data, we analysed stories the educators told in relation to their experiences, pedagogy and practice, then explored underlying beliefs and tensions—and the discourses that shaped them (Lather, 2013).

    Theoretical underpinnings

    Our exploration of the discourses of (Chinese) language takes as its premise that languages teaching and learning ‘both reflect and constitute language ideologies, … [which] involve not just language issues, they also intersect with taken-for-granted ideas of race, ethnicity and culture, producing and reinforcing complex relations of power’ (Kubota, 2019, p. 111).

    The multilingual turn (May, 2014) in language studies has highlighted the complex interconnections between language, culture, identity and difference (Kramsch & Zhu, 2020). In Australia, the tensions between Western, white and Anglophone ‘norms’ (Kincheloe & Steinberg 1997) and ‘others’ (Said, 2003) are reflected in the contentious relation between monolingualism and multilingualism in Australia (Piller, 2016), which continues to impede ‘a more constructive approach that seeks to … integrate the multiplicity of linguistic stimuli and various cultural settings for any language user, irrespective of whether they speak one or many’ (Nord, 2018, p. 9). Drawing on these theoretical directions, we re-examined how speakers, teachers and learners of languages, and multilingual classrooms are constructed and perceived, and how these dynamics could be more comprehensively understood and interrogated (Weinmann & Arber, 2017).

    Findings and discussion

    We found a strong discrepancy between advocacy for Chinese language instruction as strategic for Australia’s economic future, and media and public debates that portray Chinese as ‘too difficult and too foreign to learn’. The overarching themes that emerged from our data were:

    • Chinese as the ‘language of the future’
    • Ambivalence towards teaching and learning Chinese
    • Chinese culture and language as too foreign and ‘difficult’.

    The ‘language of the future’

    In half of the articles selected, Chinese programs were portrayed as ‘state of the art’; headings such as ‘bilingual first in schools’ suggested that bilingual programs are a new phenomenon, rather than long-established in Australia. Several articles also celebrated Chinese language programs as technologically innovative, enabling students to form ‘virtual relationships’ with ‘digital sister schools’ in China, suggesting that the goal of language learning is to communicate with ‘foreign people’ overseas—and excluding the significant Chinese-speaking community in Australia’s ‘own backyard’.

    Ambivalence towards Chinese language study

    Reflecting the controversy of China’s investment in ‘cultural projection to the world’ (Gil, 2015), many articles criticised the role of Confucius Classrooms. Headings such as ‘Schools paid $10,000 to teach Chinese, and ‘China sends teachers to Palmerston’,suggest that such programs are driven by China alone. In the same article, a statement such as ‘the Territory will soon be speaking Chinese if the NT [Northern Territory] Government gets its way’ imply hostility towards the arrival of ‘twenty Chinese teachers set to be calling the Northern Territory home’. Chinese language and culture are thus politicised as threats to Australian national identity—a view reinforced and manifested by a hierarchical view of languages.

    ‘It’s too foreign’

    Chinese may be the ‘language of the future’—but for some, ‘survival’ Chinese may be enough, as an Australian company manager comments: ‘I don’t believe Chinese is essential as all Chinese students learn English … however, basic Chinese skills assist in business etiquette and overcoming the cultural barrier’ (Irwin, 2016).

    With this view, proficiency—and a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and society—are therefore supposedly unnecessary. Surprisingly, some Languages teachers we interviewed expressed similar concerns:

    We’ve always viewed Japanese with a sense of prestige. Kids like animated cartoons, feel like there’s things they can really relate to. Now, Chinese hasn’t got that. (Stephanie)

    Popular culture can generate an interest in language learning, but it does not occur as often as assumed (Armour & Iida, 2016). Stephanie’s comment suggests that China and Chinese language lack cultural aspects that Australian students can relate to, and are therefore perceived as distant from ‘Australian’ culture. This is a theme echoed by Eric:

    The [Chinese] textbook layout … doesn’t feel Western. It feels, just even opening the book, [the] quality of the pages, fonts … kids look at it and go, ‘This looks really foreign.’ (Eric)

    For Eric, even a common textbook resource represents a linguistic and cultural chasm between East and West, which alienates Australian students when they first encounter Chinese.

    These research snapshots reflect well-documented themes in media and teacher discourses in Australia about Chinese language education: Chinese language study as purely instrumental, exoticising cultural and linguistic ‘others’, along with strong ambivalence towards China and speakers of Chinese.

    With current Australia–China tensions, re-establishing relationships that move beyond the binaries of ‘us versus them’ could be crucial for stability in our region.  If Chinese is to be positioned as the ‘language of the future’ and worth studying, it requires progressive policy and language programming that recognise that ‘while multilingualism is laudatory, the means by which one becomes multilingual also matter’. More critical engagement with Australia’s multicultural identity is needed, which will also raise new questions about how Australia communicates with its Asian neighbours.


    Armour, W. S., & Iida, S. (Eds.). (2016). Are Australian fans of anime and manga motivated to learn Japanese language? Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 36(1).

    Australian Government. (2012). Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. http://www.defence.gov.au/whitepaper/2013/docs/australia_in_the_asian_century_white_paper.pdf

    Chen, P. & Fletcher, C. (2016). Politics, economics, society, and overseas Chinese teaching: A case study of Australia. Chinese Education and Society, 49(6), 351–368.

    Chen, Z. (2015). Challenges of teaching Chinese in Australian schools: Lesson from beginning teacher-researchers. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 6(5), 933–942.

    Council of Australian Governments: Education Council (2019). Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. http://www.educationcouncil.edu.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/Reports%20and%20publications/Alice%20Springs%20(Mparntwe)%20Education%20Declaration.pdf

    Duff, P., Anderson, T., Doherty, L., & Wang, R. (2015). Representations of Chinese language learning in contemporary English-language news media: Hope, hype, and fear. Global Chinese, 1(1), 139–168.

    Gil, J. (2015). China’s cultural projection: A discussion of the Confucius Institutes. China: An International Journal, 13(1), 200–226.

    Irwin, D.(2016, 24 October). First job–and where are you now? Gold Coast Bulletin.

    Kincheloe, J. L. & Steinberg, S. R. (1997). Changing multiculturalism. Open University Press.

    Kramsch, C. & Hua Z. (2020). Translating culture in global times: An introduction. Applied Linguistics, 41(1), 1–9.

    Kubota, R. (2019). English in Japan. In P. Heinrich & Y. Ohara (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of Japanese sociolinguistics (pp. 110–126). Routledge.

    Lather, P. (2013). Methodology-21: What do we do in the afterward? Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), 634–645.

    May, S. (Ed.). (2014). The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and bilingual education. Routledge.

    Nord, H. (2018). Monolingualism versus multilingualism: Remarks on limiting visions. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326493960_Monolingualism_versus_Multilingualism_remarks_on_limiting_visions

    Nowell, L., Norris, J., White, D. & Moules, N. (2017). Thematic analysis: Striving to meet the trustworthiness criteria. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406917733847 

    Orton, J. (2016). Building Chinese language capacity in Australia. The Australia–China Relations Institute (ACRI).

    Piller, I. (2016). Monolingual ways of seeing multilingualism. Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 11, 25–33.

    Roozen, K. & Erickson, J. (2017). Expanding literate landscapes: Persons, practices, and sociohistoric perspectives of disciplinary development. Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press. http://ccdigitalpress.org/expanding/

    Scarino, A., Elder, C., Iwashita, N., Kim, S. H. O., Kohler, M., & Scrimgeour, A. (2011). Student achievement in Asian languages education. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

    Scollon, R. & Scollon, S. W. (2004). Nexus analysis: Discourse and the emerging internet. Routledge.

    Weinmann, M. & Arber, R. (2017). Orientating languages: Navigating multilingual spaces. Curriculum Perspectives,37, 173–179. doi: 10.1007/s41297-017-0028-4

    Author biographies

    Dr Michiko Weinmann, Deakin University

    Dr Michiko Weinmann is a senior lecturer in Languages Education, and Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Languages (CTaLL) at Deakin University, Melbourne. She has researched and published on multilingual education, Asia literacy, and teacher mobility. Michiko curates the Languages resources website: www.languageteacherhelpmate.com. Her forthcoming co-authored book (with Dr Rebecca Cairns, Deakin University) ‘Rethinking Asia-related Curriculum’ will be published by Routledge in 2021. Michiko is on Twitter at @MichikoWeinmann

    Dr Rod Neilsen, Deakin University

    Dr Rod Neilsen is a senior lecturer in TESOL at Deakin University, Melbourne. He has worked as an English teacher and teacher educator on five continents. He has conducted research into pre-service and in-service teacher mobility and multilingual approaches to language learning. Rod is the Chief Editor of the Australian journal, TESOL in Context. You can follow Rod on Twitter at @RodNeilsen

    Sophia Slavich, Stawell Primary School, Victoria

    Sophia Slavich is a Chinese and EAL/D language teacher with experience in primary, secondary and tertiary levels. She conducted research in language education policy as part of her Masters of Teaching degree at Deakin University, Melbourne. Sophia is an advocate for linguistic diversity and the worldviews it represents. She currently teaches Chinese at Stawell Primary School, Victoria and works as an instructional coach for beginning teachers with the Teach for Australia program.


    A Phenomenographic Study of Chinese Undergraduates’ Conceptions of Learning in Transnational Programs

    Research Highlighted:

    Zhao, X., & Hu, Y. (2020). (Open Access) A Phenomenographic Study of Chinese Undergraduates’ Conceptions of Learning in Transnational Programs. SAGE Open, 10(3), 1-13.

    Dr Xiantong Zhao, Southwest University, China

    In Chinese higher education, transnational programs or Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (CFCRS) programs (Zhongwai Hezuo Banxue Xiangmu), are becoming increasingly prevalent. It a joint venture between local Chinese universities and foreign or overseas higher education institutions (HEIs), with the aim of educating Chinese students only (Hou et al., 2014). The teaching staff is composed of both foreign lecturers from partner universities and Chinese lecturers. The programs include both language learning and specialized knowledge teaching in a foreign language. The educational resources such as teaching plan, instruction outline, teaching technologies, textbooks, and curriculum system are introduced from the partner foreign universities. Due to the education input of the materials and staff, the teaching and learning methods are diverse, including group discussion, presentation, role-play, business game simulations, and so on. Moreover, assessment methods adopted by foreign partner universities have also been borrowed to diversify the traditional Chinese evaluation system. Thus, a cross-cultural education context is formed. Nonetheless little is known about student’s actual learning experience in such programs, which may be valuable for improving the education quality.

    The present study investigated Chinese undergraduates’ conceptions of learning in programs cooperatively run by Chinese and non-Chinese universities. The research methodology adopted is phenomenography, which is defined by Marton (1994) as “the empirical study of the limited number of qualitatively different ways in which various phenomena in, and aspects of, the world around us are experienced, conceptualized, understood, perceived and apprehended” (p. 4424). Data are collected through semi-structured interviews with a group of undergraduates and analyzed following the phenomenographic principles to identify the referential and structural aspects of each conception. The referential aspect (also named as the meaning aspect) captures the global meaning of the phenomenon, whereas the structural aspect is composed of an internal horizon and an external horizon. The internal horizon denotes the focus of an individual’s attention and it “consists of the aspects of the phenomenon simultaneously present in the theme of awareness, and the relationships between these aspects and between the aspects and the phenomenon as a whole” (Cope & Prosser, 2005, p. 350). The external horizon, sometimes named as the perceptual boundary (Bruce et al., 2004), is composed of those aspects which constitute the background.

    Six main conceptions of learning, including sub-conceptions are identified, namely, learning as increase of new knowledge (A), memorization with (B2)/without (B1) understanding, application with (C2)/without (C1) understanding, making sense of the knowledge acquired (D), gaining a new perspective to view reality (E) and personal change and growth based on an extensive understanding of learning (F). Generally speaking, the relationship found between conceptions is hierarchical, with Conception A as the least complicated learning conception and Conception F as the most advanced learning conception. Yet the sub-conceptions or branches are also notable. The findings not only demonstrate the complexity of Chinese students’ conceptions of university learning under a cross-culture learning and teaching context, but they also point to the possibility of there being something new to discover, even for some familiar and well-established conceptions.

    This study calls for the attention which should be paid to the quality of CFCRS programs. In the Chinese context, policy makers considered transnational programs to be a sound way to improve the quality of teaching and learning in universities, as quality foreign education resources could be imported via such programs. However, the findings of this study reveal that the quality of CFCRS programs might be questionable from the learner’s perspective. The undergraduates investigated clearly demonstrated an overreliance on elementary and less advanced learning conceptions, whereas the pursuit of meaning was ignored and understanding, insight, and reflection seemed to be downplayed. Students’ conception of learning will affect their learning approaches and further the quality of learning as a whole as demonstrated by a number of researchers (Duarte, 2007; Edmunds & Richardson, 2009; Ellis et al., 2008). More sophisticated conceptions should be developed if deep approaches to learning are to be attained. Thus, the student participants in CFCRS programs are advised to have more advanced qualitative or transformative ways of understanding learning.


    Duarte, A. M. (2007). Conceptions of learning and approaches to learning in Portuguese students. Higher Education, 54, 781–794.

    Edmunds, R., & Richardson, J. T. (2009). Conceptions of learning, approaches to studying and personal development in UK higher education. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(2), 295–309.

    Ellis, R. A., Goodyear, P., Calvo, R. A., & Prosser, M. (2008). Engineering students’ conceptions of and approaches to learning through discussions in face-to-face and online contexts. Learning and Instruction, 18(3), 267–282.

    Hou, J., Montgomery, C., & McDowell, L. (2014). Exploring the diverse motivations of transnational higher education in China: Complexities and contradictions. Journal of Education for Teaching, 40(3), 300–318.

    Marton, F. (1994). Phenomenography. In T. Husen & N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education (pp. 4424–4429). Pergamon

    Author Biography:

    Xiantong Zhao got his PhD degree at UCL Institution of Education (previously known as Institute of Education, University of London). He has been working at Faculty of Education Southwest University since Sept. 2017. His research interests lie in internationalization of higher education, cross-border higher education (transnational higher education), cross-cultural university teaching and learning, comparative higher education and phenomenography. Since 2017, his research interest has been focused on international aspects of higher education, in particular international visiting scholars, returned early career academics (RECAs), overseas students in Chinese universities and Chinese students in transnational programs. He is now searching for academic collaboration with those who are interested in the topics mentioned above. Please get in touch if you are interested: 314829991@qq.com


    International education through a bioecological development lens – a case study of Chinese doctoral students in Australia

    Research Highlighted:

    Xing Xu, Helena Sit & Shen Chen (2020): International education through a bioecological development lens – a case study of Chinese doctoral students in Australia, Higher Education Research & Development, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2020.1811646

    Read Dr Xu’s other article here.


    Scholars have identified an increasing interest in exploring the lived experiences of international research students in Australia (e.g., Ai, 2017; Yu & Wright, 2016), which ranks fourth in attracting international doctoral students (Shen et al., 2016). However, few studies have focused specifically on the Chinese cohort, which remains the largest single national group (Shen et al., 2016) with steadily rising numbers (Chung & Ingleby, 2011). By listening to Chinese doctoral students’ emic conceptualizations of studying in Australia, this study aimed to expand the current literature regarding the enablers and disablers that contribute to their doctoral journey as a developmental trajectory under a self-formation paradigm of international study. Specifically, this article focuses on addressing two sets of research questions:(1) According to the participants, what factors contribute to their positive and negative experiences of studying in Australia? (2) Through the lens of the bioecological systems theory, how do these factors dynamically interact with each other to affect the participants’ doctoral trajectories?

    Theoretical Framework

    This paper adopts the theoretical framework of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory. It offers an analytic framework that explains human development as proximal processes within a constellation of relationships that forms the whole system of a person’s environment. A bioecological approach would contribute to a comprehensive yet nuanced understanding of the person–environment interactivity in Chinese students’ navigation of their doctoral trajectories. It would also offer international education market dominated by the global North countries such as Australia valuable insights to accommodate needs in the global South and capitalize on intellectual assets of the global South. This study bears potential practical significance to the internationalization of doctoral education given the salient status of the Chinese cohort in the international education market.


    This paper adopts a volunteer-employed photography (VEP) approach, wherein participants use photographs they choose to assist their recall or make concrete their point. Applying VEP to examine doctoral students’ experiences, previous research has revealed that the method (combined with interviews) brings abstract questions down to a hands-on and imagery level due to its visual nature (van Auken et al., 2010). Thus, it enables more disclosures of the students’ lived reality. Snowball sampling was utilised for the recruitment of participants, which secured 24 participants. The data collection was conducted over two phases: the first being the time-point where participants consented to participation, after they were informed of requirements concerning collection of photos and ethics considerations; and the second being the interview, when they elaborated on their chosen photos. The participants were required to prepare self-taken photos depicting settings, activities, or persons that negatively and positively affect their study trajectory. They were guaranteed sufficient time to compile photos they took previously or to take photos to capture a current phenomenon (Bates et al.,2017). The 24 participants were then invited to take part in a one-on-one interview. The photographs with concomitant elicitations, along with the interview transcripts, were transferred into NVivo 12 for thematic analysis.


    Findings of the study reveal that the developing person with varying dispositions, resources, and demands sits at the core of the developmental trajectory. In particular, this study shows how developmentally generative dispositions featuring agency, initiative, and engagement, reflected in inward management, enabled the participants’ doctoral study. Further, the participants demonstrated inviting demand characteristics as agents who reciprocated care and showcased initiative, encouraging favorable reactions from the social nexus. Through these transactions, more developmental dyads featuring mutually supportive effects were nurtured, boosting positive development of the doctoral trajectory. Nevertheless, not all characteristics were developmentally instigative. Health issues, for example, were counterproductive in terms of stimulating and sustaining the students’ momentum, posing barriers to the doctoral development. Further, the evolvement of development was embedded at the intersection of various contexts, ranging from direct settings to broader sociocultural factors. The findings show that the participants’ doctoral trajectory transcended the academic sphere and was influenced substantially by non-academic factors. It was holistically molded by social agents, behaviors, and relationships within the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem. The complexity of the content and structure of these subsystems concurrently enabled and restrained the students’ PhD journeys.

    The findings suggest some practical suggestions for stakeholders involved in this trajectory. For example, the doctoral students’ situation warrants empathy and cultural sensitivity from supervisors who enact pedagogical principles based on equity and professionalism. As important shapers of students’ experiences, institutions and faculties should give greater voice to PhD students regarding teaching, learning, and other facets of student life, as a holistic understanding can allow for optimization of service delivery. Further, as the core driving force in the bioecological system, it is contingent upon PhD students to initiate their autonomy to negotiate, utilize, and create resources for their development in both their home and host environments. A fine-grained elaboration of these practices, however, is neither the focus of this study, nor possible to accomplish in a piece of this length. Based on a small sample, this study is limited in terms of generalizability and representativeness. Nevertheless, it has contributed to the current scholarship of international education by (1) further substantiating the self-formation paradigm based on empirical discussions with a particular cohort in a particular locale, and (2) unpacking the entwining dynamics shaping the developmental trajectory of international study using the broad framework of the bioecological systems theory.

    Authors’ Bio

    Dr Xing Xu, Sichuan International Studies University

    Dr Xing Xu obtained her PhD from the University of Newcastle, Australia, and is Lecturer at Sichuan International Studies University. Her research interests include internationalization of higher education, doctoral students’ evaluation of educational experience, academic mobility, identity construction of doctoral students, and qualitative inquiry. Her publications have appeared in Higher Education Research and Development, The Australian Educational Researcher, Reflective Practice, etc. Her recent co-authored book The Eastern Train on the Western Track: An Australian Case of Chinese Doctoral Students’ Adaptation was published by Springer in 2020. She can be contacted via email: xing.xu@uon.edu.au.

    Dr Helena Sit, University of Newcastle, Australia

    Dr Helena Sit is a Senior Lecturer and PhD supervisor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Prior to joining the University of Newcastle, she worked as a teaching and research academic at Macquarie University and the University of Hong Kong. Her research expertise includes Second Language Education, International Education, Higher Education and Teacher Education. Her research experience is concerned with internationalisation, transformative learning, and innovation language education programmes. She supervises Ph.D. students in Education and her contributions have been recognised at both the national and international levels. 

    Dr Shen Chen, University of Newcastle, Australia

    Dr Shen Chen is a teacher educator in School of Education at University of Newcastle, Australia. He has extensive teaching experiences including a visiting fellow in Cambridge University, Warwick University, UK, University of California, Berkeley, USA, University of British Columbia, Canada, University of Hong Kong, Nanjing University, Beijing Language and Culture University, China. His contribution has been in the teaching and research of culture in language education and second language teacher education. He was the recipient of the Australian National Teaching Award in 2014. His established record as an excellent researcher has been demonstrated by 8 books and numerous articles.


    Time, class and privilege in career imagination: Exploring study-to-work transition of Chinese international students in UK universities through a Bourdieusian lens

    Research Highlighted

    Xu, C. L. (2020). (Open Access) Time, class and privilege in career imagination: Exploring study-to-work transition of Chinese international students in UK universities through a Bourdieusian lens. Time & Society, 0(0), 1-25. doi:10.1177/0961463×20951333

  • Watch a video on this paper.
  • Refer to a presentation given by Dr Cora Xu at the ‘International Mobilities and Post-Pandemic Futures in the Asia-Pacific’ conference organised by the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

    Dr Cora Lingling Xu, Durham University


    Existing research and policy on international students’ study-to-work transition fall short of a temporal theoretical perspective that is sensitive to the fluid and class-stratified nature of their career imagination. Career imagination refers to how international students conceive of, enact and reconfigure their careers as they encounter novel circumstances along their life courses. Drawing on in-depth interview data with 21 Chinese international students and graduates at UK higher education institutions, this article adopts a primarily Bourdieusian framework that centres around how time, class and privilege intersect to shape these students’ career imagination. In this framework, time is conceptualised both as a form of coveted cultural capital and as an underlining mechanism that constitutes these students’ habitus. This theoretical orientation facilitates exposition of the complex rationale behind the two observed temporal career strategies, ‘deferred gratification’ and ‘temporal destructuring’ and accentuates nuanced inequalities pertaining to fine-grained familial class backgrounds and places of origin of these students. This article furnishes empirical cases that challenge extant policy and empirical literature’s tendency to consider international students and their career imagination as homogeneous, individualised and present-focused. Instead, the empirical findings reveal how these Chinese international students’ career imagination is class-differentiated, embedded within and influenced by broader temporal structures and constantly evolving. This article thus advances understanding about how temporally sensitive and better differentiated career supports should be and could be tailored for international students at policy and practice levels.


    Current policy discourse in destination countries such as the UK, Canada, Denmark and Singapore has often statisticised international students as lifeless figures that constitute graduate employment indicators. These instrumental approaches betray policymakers’ lack of intention to harbour international students’ subjective career wishes, plans and imaginations. Instead, there are prevalent focuses on the present, the Now of the international students’ employability and much oblivion of the ‘unpredictable’ future and impact of ‘the passage of time’ on these students’ post-study career enactment (Collins & Shubin, 2017, p. 19). Such policies also tend to consider career deliberation of international students as a linear process that could be compartmentalised in a specific period, e.g. pre-employment stages.

    Within such policy accounts, international students are often individualised and homogenised. They are individualised because they are frequently assumed to be ‘individual free agents, able to respond to [migration policies] in line with their individual career or lifestyle preferences’ (Geddie, 2013, p. 204); this assumption ignores the ‘embedded’ nature of international students’ career decision-making, as shaped by their complex transnational relationship and citizenship strategies (ibid.). They are homogenised because they are typically portrayed to fit this persona:

    … are financially secure; have the support (emotional and material) of family and friends (i.e. ‘social capital’); have been raised in an environment that places great value on formal education and credentials; have highly educated parents; and have experienced overseas travel as a child (Waters, 2012, p. 128).

    This stereotype is counterproductive as it may falsely lead policymakers and institutions to believe that a one-size-fits-all approach is sufficient for supporting all international students’ study-to-work transition. In fact, research has revealed that international students can be highly diversified and socio-economically stratified.

    Nevertheless, there has been little empirical understanding about how time features in and shapes the career imagination of international students. Take the case of Chinese international students with British higher education degrees for example: much existing research on these students has been focused on their perceptions about employability and approaches to getting hired immediately after graduation.

    To redress the above gaps, this article investigates the career imagination of 21 Chinese international students and graduates with British higher education degrees who are from middle- and upper middle-class backgrounds. It has two aims: firstly, to provide a theoretical vocabulary for understanding how time features in and shapes these Chinese international students’ career imagination; secondly, to pinpoint how class, privilege and time intersect to underpin these participants’ temporal career strategies. By achieving these aims, this article can serve as an anchoring point for informing better differentiated career supports for international students at policy and practice levels.

    Theoretical framework

    This article is informed primarily by Bourdieu’s (1986, 2002) conceptual tools of capital, field, and habitus as well as his writings on the social structuring of temporal experience (Bourdieu 2000). Specifically, I first conceptualise time as a form of coveted cultural capital (following Cheng 2014), the possession and free deployment of which can be highly stratified along class lines and shapes the adoption of career strategies such as ‘waiting’ (to be elaborated) among these Chinese international students. Second, I draw on Atkinson (2019), Snyder (2016) and Adam (1990, 2006) to expound how time is integral to the field and sedimented within these Chinese international students’ habitus, thus inclining them towards certain career preferences, attitudes and approaches over others, reinforcing and reproducing forms of class privilege. While Bourdieu’s theoretical framework facilitates an incisive set of tools for unpicking the structural factors that impact on these participants’ temporal understanding of career imagination, I have turned to concepts such as ‘deferred gratification’ (Adam, 1990) and ‘temporal destructuring’ (Leccardi and Rampazi, 1993) from the cannon of sociology of time as specific conceptual vocabulary that can depict observed career strategies among participants.

    Temporally sensitive research approach and implications

    This study employed both pre-employment anticipation and on-the-job reflection and retrospection from participants to highlight that their career imagination is an ongoing and evolving project. The data reveal that some participants have substantially recalibrated their career ambition, e.g. Chang and Jing both realised that their initial career ideal of working in the UK did not match their temporal expectation of enjoying high quality personal time. Instead they found that working in Switzerland and Australia respectively fit their overall career temporal rhythms better. Qie’s initial decision of rejecting the overwork-culture in China was reinforced after three years of work in the UK where he could enjoy better work-life balance. However, as his career progressed, his began to see new resources and opportunities (e.g. the high-end talent schemes) in China that could serve his temporal ideal while advancing his career. Li’s deferred gratification strategy eventually allowed him to subvert the temporal structures imposed on him back in China and embraced the alternative work and lifestyle in Britain. He thus appeared to experience fewer adjustments in pursuing his career ambitions. Inclusion of on-the-job reflection, retrospection and prospection of international students is thus a useful way to unpack the embedded temporal dimension of career imagination, which has been missing in career support policy and practices, as well as empirical research (Huang & Turner, 2018; AGCAS, 2016).

    These lively career imagination trajectories also demonstrate that international students are much more than lifeless graduate employment figures (HESA, 2018). Their career imagination is fluid and contingent upon their specific personal and familial circumstances, and sensitive to alternative temporal structures that they are exposed to. It is, therefore, pivotal to devise career support services that are conducive to supporting these students to understand their longer-term career needs and priorities. Importantly, it is advisable to cultivate their exposure to alternative temporal structures and pinpoint possible routes to achieving their career ambitions. The use of career case studies, such as the ones discussed in this article, could serve as useful reference points for international students to ascertain their own circumstances and devise corresponding temporally sensitive career strategies.

    Dr Cora Lingling Xu, Durham University


    This article makes three contributions to the literature. Firstly, its Bourdieusian temporally sensitive theoretical framework provides necessary conceptual vocabulary to understand how international students’ career imagination is shaped by their class, privilege and access to time. This theoretical orientation facilitates exposition of the complex rationale behind the two observed career strategies, ‘deferred gratification’ and ‘temporal destructuring’ and accentuates nuanced inequalities pertaining to fine-grained familial class backgrounds and places of origin. Secondly, this article provides empirical cases that illustrate the evolving nature of international students’ career imagination. Such cases challenge extant policy and empirical literature’s tendency to consider international students and their career imagination as homogeneous, individualised and present-focused. Thirdly, consequently, this article advances understanding about how temporally sensitive and better differentiated career supports should be and could be tailored for international students at policy and practice levels.

    Author Bio

    Dr Cora Lingling Xu (PhD Cambridge, FHEA) is Assistant Professor at Durham University, UK. Her research interests include educational mobilities, identities and social theories. She has researched cross-border student and academic migration, ethnic minority and rurality topics within contemporary Chinese societies. She is an editorial board member of the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Cambridge Journal of Education and International Studies in Sociology of Education. She is founder and director of Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities. Her publications have appeared in The Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology of Education, International Studies in Sociology of Education, Time and Society, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, Policy Reviews in Higher Education, Review of Education, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs and European Educational Research Journal. You can access her publications here. She can be contacted via Email: lingling.xu@durham.ac.uk; ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3895-3934; Twitter: CoraLinglingXu

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  • CALL FOR ABSTRACTS: The British Association for Comparative and International Education

    The 2nd Annual Early Career Conference (Online), Saturday 5th August – Sunday 6th August 2023

    We are delighted to announce that the call for abstracts is now open for The British Association for Comparative International Education (BAICE). The Student Committee warmly welcomes your submissions to our 2023 Annual Early Career conference, ‘Transformative education as a force for change: reflections and experiences from around the world’ The conference will be held over two days, hosted online via zoom.

    We invite submissions from postgraduate students, researchers and practitioners engaged with education research. The conference offers a dynamic and friendly environment for postgraduate researchers to showcase and discuss their research, even if the research is still in early stages. Attendees will be able to listen to colleagues from different areas of the Education Studies field; those presenting will be able to receive feedback in a diverse, constructive and academically rigorous environment.

    We welcome innovative and creative submissions on any research topic concerned with ‘Transformative education as a force for change: reflections and experiences from around the world’

    Please submit your 300-word abstract (excluding references) to us. We would expect your abstract to include the following elements:

    Introduction: The goal and significance of the study

    • Methods: Types of data (ex: primary or secondary data ) and methods of data collection (ex: interview, focus groups, survey, participant observation, literature review, document / dataset analysis etc.)

    Results: Summary of findings and analysis

    • Discussion: Interpretations, conclusions, broader implications, future research

    (Adapted from Elissa Jacobs, University Writing Program, 2020)

    The deadline for abstract submission is 20th June 2023, 12 midnight (GMT).

    We are delighted to let you know that the BAICE Early Career conference will be free to attend. If you have any queries, please contact students@baice.ac.uk

    Managing Editor: Tong Meng

    Governing through ambiguity in the normalizing society: The lesson from Chinese transnational higher education regulation

    Research highlighted

    Han, X. (2023). Governing through ambiguity in the normalizing society: The lesson from Chinese transnational higher education regulation.  Journal of Education Policy, Online First. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2023.2210094

    The traditional technocratic model in policy analysis features in three dimensions: first, it takes language as the transparent vehicle to facilitate communications between writers and various readers; second, it follows the problem-solving route, considering policy documents as the political responses empirically based upon factual data to existing social problems; third, it considers the participants as disinterested individuals immunizing from the policy impact. Following this empiricist-idealist view of language, scholars are expected to provide neutral data/information for policy-makers to develop/revise solutions to the pre-identified problems, seek authorial intentions hidden behind the policy texts, and proffer interpretations which could generate commensurable meaning among readers. In other words, it equalizes language to a static set of perfect signifiers about the externally constituted world of things, and by so doing sidesteps the contingencies, intricacies, and indeterminacies of policies.

    The progress in socio-linguistics directs scholars’ attention to the discourse property of language, and also, policy documents. Discourse, especially for Foucault-inspired critical policy analysts, does more than designate things: it delimits what can be said and thought; it constitutes, produces, and creates, rather than enumerating and describing subjects, objects, and places; it sets the norms to fabricate individuals into the social order, elicits their self-governance as an act of free will, and thus yields human beings into made subjects.

    While existing critical studies on making politics visible are cornucopian in demonstrating how power penetrates into every aspect of social life, to institute disciplinary technologies and thus conduct individuals’ conduct, Foucault’s own slide from the terminal stage of discourse—the linguistic elements, may whittle the theory’s potency in explaining the reality, especially when referring to policy research in the broader social science fields including public administration, politics and international relations: if policy discourse functions to convey norms in shaping desirable subjects, its expression should be as precise as possible to be followed. Why could policymakers endure and even encourage equivocalness in policy texts instead of trying to reduce it?

    Empirically based upon China’s regulation over transnational higher education (TNHE),  this article draws interdisciplinary prism to highlight the persistent existence of ambiguity in policy documents and its impact on the enacting process. For instance, in authoritarian China, linguistic ambiguity could demonstrate its positive effects: within the context of severe discursive conflict, the equivocal expressions not only mask the incompatible norms setting but also leave negotiation room for creative policy enactment. Specifically, Chinese national policies about TNHE embodies the “curious hybrid of command and market”: on one hand, the introduction of neoliberalism permits the penetration of market logic into the previously state-controlled domain of education when China decides to modernize itself by internationalizing its higher education (HE) system. As a vital and integral part of HE internationalization, TNHE thus gains permission (and encouragement) to develop within Chinese territory; on the other hand, although TNHE itself instantiates the imposition of neoliberal discourse, the authoritarian concern of China to take “the total administration of life”, and its ideological reliance on socialism for moral legitimacy prevent its full embrace of market logic. To ensure the state’s interference into every social aspect, the local officials are  expected to simultaneously facilitate and prevent the penetration of market forces into the TNHE.

    It is within this context that clarification in policy documents is considered “managerially sound” but “politically irrational”. The deliberate adoption of ambiguous expressions could not only help to convince readers but also leave negotiating room for policy practitioners to achieve contradictory ends. This is the “positive effect of ambiguity” highlighted by Matland (1995, 158). For example, to mask the market -based inequality in China’s socialist society, the national policies adopt rather ambiguous expressions in regulating the tuition fee setting, which is required to consider the affordability of the students” and to achieve the balance between the charges in public and private universities. So while the tuition fee is calculated and decided by the universities, it must gain approval from local governments before coming into effect.

    However, the criteria is riddled with ambiguity, clarifying neither the authoritarian/socialist nor neoliberal norm: the difficulty (or more precisely, impossibility) of quantifying the “affordability” of potential students; the fuzzy measurement of “balancing between public and private universities”—especially when considering what the Deputy Director from Y Provincial Government frankly states: “TNHE in China is legally regulated by the Non-state (private) Education Promotion Law, so it is unclear how to balance the charge…”; and the obscuring gauge in calculating the cultivating cost of students, “there is no simple criteria in deciding the faculty salaries in TNHE (compared with Chinese public universities)…most of the time they have to make a better offer (based on the qualification and the faculty’s former pay level) for introducing talents” (2017). These ambiguous statements, on the other hand, permit flexibility for local officials when enacting national policies. As he continues to say candidly: “The tuition fee set by the TNHE (especially Sino-foreign cooperation universities) is relatively autonomous, and we always permit their application for the charge”. Such support and permission are based on the local officials’ understanding of market logic, as he explains: “They are running the TNHE in the market… students have a lot of choices—studying physically abroad, applying to other programs/colleges/universities, or enrolling in other Chinese universities…the setting of charge has already been monitored and modified by the market” (2019).

    When the imposition of law in population regulation has been gradually replaced by its calculated practice of directing categories of social agents, the individuals are seemingly permitted to act “freely and proactively”. However, the Chinese local officials’ creativity and innovation in flexibly enacting national policies have never been “in a position of exteriority to power”, but ending up enforcing and intensifying the existing power relations—the authoritarian control in China as they boost the development of TNHE and thus prove the “rightness” of China’s political control. This strategic and invisible operation of power deserves scholarly attention for how it objectifies and subjectifies human beings.

    Authors’ Bio

    Dr. Xiao Han,
    Tianjin University

    Dr Xiao HAN earned her B.A. (Economics) from Jilin University and Ph.D (Education) from the Education University of Hong Kong. She worked for two years as a postdoctoral fellow at Lingnan University and then took the position of Beiyang associate professor at the School of Education, Tianjin University. She will take the position of assistant professor at the Department of International Education, Education University of Hong Kong soon. Her research is trans-disciplinary-based, focusing on critical policy analysis, international/transnational higher education, and Foucault/Bourdieu studies. Her works have been published in international journals such as Journal of Education Policy, Higher Education, and Policy and Society. She can be contacted at: hanxiao0309@hotmail.com.

    Managing editor: Xin Fan