‘Diaspora at home’: class and politics in the navigation of Hong Kong students in Mainland China’s Universities

Xu, C. L. (2019). ‘Diaspora at home’: class and politics in the navigation of Hong Kong students in Mainland China’s Universities. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 1-18. doi:10.1080/09620214.2019.1700821

Watch a lecture video based on this paper. 

Dr Cora Lingling Xu, Durham university


This paper draws on ‘diaspora at home’, a concept that encapsulates the unique dynamics between Hong Kong and mainland China, as an analytical tool to explore the cross-border experiences of 23 Hong Kong students at 11 universities in mainland China. It empirically ascertains how the made and imposed claims and identifications of these Hong Kong students resulted in inclusion and exclusion as their interactions with their mainland peers and institutions deepened. Specifically, it highlights how their ‘diaspora at home’ status offered exclusive access to privileged higher education opportunities, preferential treatments and opportunities for upward social mobility. Meanwhile, such a status also resulted in an overwhelming sense of political liability as they unwittingly became ‘political tokens’ and suspected political subjects amid the increasingly tense political atmosphere between mainland China and Hong Kong. This paper pinpoints the relevance of class and politics in understanding how diasporic groups engage with higher education.

Diaspora at home

When Hong Kong returned to the PRC, overnight, the people of Hong Kong no longer belonged to the overseas Chinese diaspora. However, the legacy of colonial rule and Hong Kong’s special status continue to mark Hongkongers’ distinction from their counterparts in mainland China. This is a typical example in which the border migrated over people. Consequently, Hongkongers ‘were suddenly narrated into the experiential status that diaspora marks when coded as the stranger[s]-within. They may not have crossed the border. The border crossed them.’ Extending ‘diaspora’ to ‘diaspora at home’, in this case, seems fitting to capture the complex and multiple Chinese identities of the Hong Kong students who journey across the within-country border.

This article examines an understudied population in migration studies – cross-border students who are neither international nor domestic but have a unique ‘diaspora at home’ status. Through the ambiguous status of such students, the paper examines a central research question: what roles do class positions and political stances of Hong Kong students play in their experiences of mainland universities? Furthermore, this article illustrates both positive and negative roles the ‘diaspora at home’ status plays in these Hong Kong students’ educational and occupational navigation in mainland China. The paper sheds important light on rethinking the notions of border, citizenship, and nation-state in migration studies, and contributes to an expansive understanding of international students and cross-border education.

More specifically, I have drawn on data to argue firstly that the experiences of these Hong Kong students have been deeply politicised due to their ‘diaspora at home’ status; and secondly, that their class positions in Hong Kong have uniquely oriented them to take up the opportunities offered by the politically-motivated preferential higher education admission policies of the PRC government, due to the prospect of upward social mobility which was much less accessible in Hong Kong.

In navigating their journeys in mainland China, these students’ ‘diaspora at home’ status interplayed with the special ‘diasporic space’ in Beijing and resulted in these students’ exclusive access to an elite circle of Hongkongers made up of top-rank government officials and business elites. Such social connections would not have been possible had they stayed in Hong Kong, and enabled these students to accumulate social capital that facilitated subsequent competitive internship and job opportunities. Getting admitted to prestigious mainland universities also provided these Hong Kong students much-needed institutional and professional prestige and channels to secure ‘dignified’ employments, either in mainland China or in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, the highly politicised nature of their ‘diaspora at home’ status has been characterised by their simultaneous roles as ‘political tokens’ for conveying political unity messages and as potentially ‘dangerous’ and ‘suspicious’ political others, subjecting them to intense public scrutiny, hostile political confrontations and surveillance on campus. While these Hong Kong students took advantage of the higher education and upward social mobility offered by the PRC government and institutions, they became unwittingly committed to serving as subjects (or indeed ‘tokens’) for fostering political integration. In these senses, the Hong Kong students could be considered as becoming ‘political sacrifices’ for the PRC government’s ‘state driven strategy…toward eventual political integration’ of ‘disarticulated political entities including Hong Kong’ (Lan and Wu, 2016, p. 745).  

Adopting ‘diaspora at home’ as an analytical lens has made it possible to tease out the nuances of the types of exclusions and navigations that these Hong Kong students as ‘strangers-within’ (Charusheela, 2007) have experienced, pertaining to politics and politicisation, and class and social mobility. As members of the ‘diaspora at home’, these Hong Kong students embodied and became impacted by many of the tensions and efforts that traditional diasporic groups have experienced when migrating abroad, e.g. exclusion and suspicion based on assumed and imposed political beliefs. Importantly, these Hong Kong students are dissimilar to their peers from middle-class backgrounds (Waters, 2007) and/or of higher academic achievement levels (Te and Postiglione, 2018); instead, their working-class background and/or academic standing inclined them towards such cross-border higher education moves. Distilling such embedded nature of class and politics thus allowed me to follow Brubaker’s (2005, p. 13) argument and focus on their ‘disaporic stances, projects, claims…practices’. Such an analytical orientation thus resonates with the consensus among migration scholars regarding the pertinence of departing from methodological nationalism and becoming sensitive to internal heterogeneity of the diaspora groups (Anthias, 1998; Brubaker, 2005; Kleist, 2008).

Author Bio

Dr Cora Lingling Xu(PhD, Cambridge, FHEA) is Assistant Professor at Durham University, UK. She is an editorial board member of British Journal of Sociology of Education, Cambridge Journal of Education and International Studies in Sociology of Education. In 2017, Cora founded the Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities. Cora has published in international peer-reviewed journals, including British Journal of Sociology of Education, The Sociological Review, International Studies in Sociology of Education, Review of Education, European Educational Research Journal and Journal of Current Chinese Affairs. Her research interests include Bourdieu’s theory of practice, sociology of time, rural-urban inequalities, ethnicity, education mobilities and inequalities and China studies. She can be reached at lingling.xu@durham.ac.uk, and via Twitter @CoraLinglingXu.

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