The People in Between: Education, Desire and South Koreans in Contemporary China

Dr Xiao Ma, Leiden University, the Netherlands

Please find sections of my dissertation on Leiden University Repository

Xiao Ma_1


This dissertation is an ethnographic research of three groups of people from South Korea to China — parents, students and educational agents — focusing on their desire regarding education. Examining this sheds light on the subjectivities of the people who are confronted with their structural positioning as being sojourners from South Korea and foreigners in China.

The individual desire on education is induced by and reflects China’s national ‘ambition’ in pursuit of educational internationalisation and Korea’s ‘compulsion’ to incorporate overseas nationals into its rhetoric of globalisation. Both nation-states confer political privileges on the children of overseas Korean nationals in their educational trajectories (e.g. preferential treatment in university entrance) by identifying them as potential international talents resources.

Consequently, students and people around them are empowered by the state discourse and gain legitimacy to creatively comply with, tactically appropriate, or, simply discard educational arrangements by the states. Paradoxically, they simultaneously encounter regulatory, socio-economic, and geographical constraints as they reside in China and make plans for further migration.

This thesis demonstrates that ethnic solidarity is restrictive in helping Koreans obtain opportunities that they expect to have. Koreans are increasingly scattered depending on their social-economic statuses and set out to merge with non-ethnics. This trait offers a significant insight into the nuanced tendency of the Chinese immigration policy.





The people in between

This project understands South Koreans in China as ‘sojourners’ (ch’eryuja) and ‘foreigners’ (waiguoren), which are respectively identified by Korean and Chinese governments. This terminology represents a form of structural positioning endowed by the states, imbued with significant implications of favouring population mobility over settlement. I find that the government-defined terminology reflects rather than contrasts the migrants’ perceptions of the sending and receiving countries, which I call a form of ‘subject positioning’, also a status of ‘in between’ (Grillo 2007).

When making choices between different schooling systems and devising plans to go to universities in different national settings, parents and students are simultaneously sketching a cognitive map regarding the residence country, the homeland and the world beyond. Disengagement from home is conceived as a desirable opportunity to accumulate cultural capital in the younger generation; disintegration into the residence society is regarded as a preferable option to an undesirable destination. Homecoming is probably the ultimate goal, although this may be postponed due to intentions to pave the way for a smoother and more beneficial return to the homeland. The objective of remaining in the host society or re-migrating to a third destination is to be recharged overseas before returning to the highly competitive home country.


The art of being governed

Drawing on the term ‘the art of being governed’ (Szonyi, 2017), this project reveals the everyday politics between ordinary people and the state. I suggest that resistance is not the only strategy, so too is compliance. Migrant parents, students and agents learn and internalise national discourses and policies and convert them into their everyday concerns (Deleuze and Guattari 1983). It does not mean that individuals become ‘docile subjects’ who repress their desire and correspond their behaviour to social norms and political rules (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 118). Rather, it unveils a capacity to learn and use state policies to one’s advantage, and ‘to borrow the state’s legitimacy and prestige and turn it into a political resource for one’s own purposes’ (Szonyi 2017, 221). In doing this they decide when to comply with, how to appropriate and whether to ignore state regimes. Moreover, they are able to choose which country’s policy to follow. Thus, they become subjects who tactically indulge or tame, intensify or reduce, consist in or convert their desire between different state regimes. They explore, learn and practice ‘the art of being governed’.

Being identified as potential ‘international talents’ and ‘global human assets’, the Korean students in my study are manpower highly valued in the state’s political agenda. Their mobility is indispensably supported and conditioned by their parents and the educational agents. Given the political significance imposed on students, they and the people who facilitate their movements are substantially differentiated from the politically subordinated people. They are authorised by the national rhetoric and become intimately connected with the state and capable of appropriating policies to their advantage. This demonstrates Michel Foucault’s vantage point on desire and power: the sovereignty of nation-states, as a terminal form that power takes, is by no means external to individuals and their subjectivities, rather it constitutes an integral part of them (Foucault 1978, 92).


Ethnicity and class

In general, a conspicuous sense of ethnic solidarity within each group of parents, students and educational agents failed to be manifested. Rather, they scrambled to gain more benefits and circumvent possible loss by making discursive and practical boundaries with their counterparts: expat and non-expat parents, good and bad students, illegal and exemplary businesses. A host of competition, comparison and differentiation were shown in the intra-ethnic interactions. This denotes that the extensive emphasis on ethnic origin and cultural heterogeneity is restrictive in helping Koreans obtain the socio-economic opportunities that they expect to have, which I call a process of de-territorialised ethnicity. This is not indicative of a dysfunction of ethnic institutions such as Korean schools and private-run education institutes. Rather, considerable numbers of students were reliant on the ethnic institutes in the pursuit of their dream universities in Korea, China or a third destination. To meet student demands, ethnic education agents were required to mediate multiple interest groups by transcending ethnic and national boundaries (e.g. collaboration with Chinese schools and universities).

This de-territorialisation of ethnicity occurs simultaneously alongside another tendency that I term as re-territorialisation of class. Despite being homogeneously defined as middle-class in the home country, Koreans in China developed dynamic and specific identities to differentiate their social position from other members of this group. Their identification is derived from their employment status (as expats and non-expats), income, and consumption pattern (e.g. the type of school a child attends or the neighbourhood where a family resides). As a consequence, fragmented Korean ethnic groups established connections and identified with non-ethnic counterparts such as Chinese and/or other foreigners.



Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 1983. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books.

Grillo, Ralph. 2007. “Betwixt and Between: Trajectories and Projects of Transmigration.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 33 (2): 199–217.

Szonyi, Michael. 2017. The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China. Princeton University Press.


Author’s short bio

Dr Xiao Ma holds a Master’s degree in Sociology from China Agricultural University in Beijing.  In 2018, she obtained her PhD in social anthropology from Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her research interests include anthropology and sociology of migration, transnationalism, migration and education, migrant and nation-state, ethnicity and class. She carried out fieldwork in China, South Korea and in the Netherlands. Her book chapter entitled ‘Educational Desire and Transnationality of South Korean Middle Class Parents in Beijing’ was published in Destination China: Immigration to China in the Post-reform Era, edited by Angela Lehmann and Pauline Leonard, Palgrave Macmillan, in 2018. Xiao can be contacted via email at


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