International Higher Education and Public Diplomacy: A Case Study of Ugandan Graduates from Chinese Universities

Ben Mulvey, PhD Candidate,
The Education University of Hong Kong

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Mulvey, B. (2019). International Higher Education and Public Diplomacy: A Case Study of Ugandan Graduates from Chinese Universities. Higher Education Policy, 1-19.

This article addresses the recruitment of international students by Chinese universities as a means of public diplomacy. The Chinese government invests heavily in recruiting international students to study in Chinese universities, with the rationale that this will lead to improved relations between China and students’ respective home countries. However, empirical evidence for, and understanding of, the mechanisms through which international study leads to improved relations between host and sending country is weak (Wilson, 2014). Whilst there is a consensus in the scholarly literature with regard to China’s intention to use international student recruitment ion order to meet foreign policy goals, there has been very little empirical research carried out with the aim of exploring how China may be accumulating influence through international student recruitment in individual countries.

Students from Africa appear to be of particular importance within China’s international student recruitment. In total during 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Education indicates that 81,562 African students studied in China (Ministry of Education, 2019). This means that the number of African students in China is now greater than the number in the UK or USA, making China the second largest destination country for internationally mobile African tertiary education students. With this in mind, one country in Africa with particularly close relations with China – Uganda – was chosen as a case study of interest. The Ugandan government is almost unique in that it was one of the first African governments to follow China’s development model (Waldron, 2008; Shen and Taylor, 2012). It is also a member state of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced in 2013, which has rapidly become the dominant representation of China’s foreign policy practices. International student mobility is therefore just one facet of an expanding network of social, political, and economic ties between Uganda and China.

The case study uncovered common experiences of social alienation as a barrier to ‘deep’ social interactions that appear to be an important means of change in attitude towards the host country (Lomer, 2017a). Participants generally reported experiences of discrimination on the basis of race in China, and this emerged in the interviews as an important potential barrier to positive social interactions and a sense of community between participants and local people. It is important to note, however, that these negative interactions were largely outside of the university, rather than with faculty or local students. These perceptions and experiences of isolation were common. Most cited examples of what they perceived to be anti-African racism in everyday interactions, or when trying to find part-time work—this echoes some previous studies on African students in China, and research on anti-African racism in China more generally, in which there is a common argument that the Chinese perception of Africans is essentialized and racialized, creating a negative image of Africa in China, and often leading to negative experiences for Africans who study or work there (e.g. Cheng, 2011; Haugen, 2013; Ho, 2017; 2018; King, 2013). In particular, Ho (2018, 20), exploring the gastronomic practices of African students in China, echoes these findings, writing that ‘[t]he “Western” experience continues to hold allure for the African student migrants in China, reinforced by their encounters with prejudice and social exclusion in Chinese society’. In other words, the experiences of social exclusion highlighted in both Ho’s study, and this one, effectively act to subvert Chinese soft power.

Although the participants in this study expressed how feelings of social alienation and discrimination shaped their experiences in China, when asked to reflect on how attitudes towards China had changed over the course of study, most participants focused on academic experiences, which were largely positive, and on a sense of ‘understanding’ of Chinese society. Participants often mentioned learning not only from faculty members but also from the attitudes of Chinese students. A previous survey of African students in China highlighted that a constant refrain from students was the impact and transfer of Chinese attitudes towards work and study (King, 2013). Similarly, participants in this study emphasized learning from Chinese counterparts.

However, most participants were somewhat sceptical about Chinese involvement in Uganda, despite the fact the majority received full scholarships from the Chinese government. The following quote is fairly typical in that it highlights graduates’ sceptical attitudes towards Chinese involvement in Uganda:

“Most of the time they look at how to promote their business. I think we can call it a sweet colonial ideology. Like they are colonising us softly, and in a very sweet way and a polite way… they win favour with your government.” (Participant 9)

Waters (2018, 306) writes that a result of the soft power rationale for international higher education provision is ‘the dehumanizing of the international student’ which ‘means that they are rarely seen as political or social actors in their own right’. This flaw within the rationale is highlighted by the excerpts above. Students left China with a better understanding of relationship between the two countries, but ultimately held critical views towards their host as a result of this understanding.

Despite reporting some negative or alienating experiences in China and scepticism towards some aspects of Sino-Ugandan bilateral relations, participants found that undertaking employment related to China’s interests in Uganda was also a means to gain economic advantage. Engaging in mobility to China allowed participants to accumulate a variety of resources which, due to the relationship between Uganda and China, are increasingly easily convertible into advantages in the labour market. The rapidly changing position of China in relation to Uganda means that credentials which theoretically offer proof of the holders’ China-related competencies (in this case an understanding of Chinese language and culture) are highly valued by employers and can be utilised for economic gain through trade or business consulting. This incentivises Ugandan graduates to leverage their China related competencies for their own benefit—as opposed to a desire to forward China’s national interests. These participants perceived that Chinese language ability and, more broadly, an understanding of the nuances of Chinese culture gained whilst in China have been important in post-graduation career trajectories. Strikingly, all other than one who had studied medicine and worked in a Ugandan hospital corroborated claims here about the value of understanding Chinese language and culture in the Ugandan job market.

The article concludes by highlighting two apparent flaws in China’s assumptions about higher education as a means of public diplomacy. Chinese policy towards international students fails to account for firstly, the individual agency of students, and secondly, for how students’ agentic decision-making is related to the structure of the global political economy, and the sending and host country’s relative positions within it. The evidence presented highlights the nuanced and complex views of graduates towards their host and demonstrates that students are in fact political actors in their own right, rather than passive diplomatic tools, as policy texts in many destination countries sometimes imply.

Author bio

Ben Mulvey is a PhD candidate at the Education University of Hong Kong and visiting research student at University College London Department of Geography. Ben’s research focuses on sub-Saharan African students in China, and what this student flow can reveal about China’s attempts to (re)shape the global “field” of higher education. He can be contacted via the following email address:

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