Mainland Chinese Students in Hong Kong: Opportunities and Struggles

Dr. Yinni Peng, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong, China

Research highlighted

Peng, Yinni. (2019). From migrant student to migrant employee: Three models of the school-to-work transition of mainland Chinese in Hong Kong. Population, Space and Place, DOI: 10.1002/psp.2283 (online first).

Peng, Yinni. (2016). Student migration and polymedia: Mainland Chinese students’ communication media use in Hong Kong. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 42(14), 2395-2412.

The internationalization and commodification of higher education in developed societies has caused mass migration of students who leave their home societies to pursue a tertiary (or higher) degree in another country or society (Samers, 2010). The number of international students increased from 1.3 million in 1990 to 5.3 million in 2017 (OECD, 2010; Migration Data Portal, 2019). Student migration has become an important topic in both migration and education research. Rich studies (e.g., Robertson, 2013; Samers, 2010; Waters, 2008) have examined the causes of student migration, the channels of or obstacles to student migration, and its effects on both source and host societies. My research interest in mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong is partly shaped by my general interest in migration and partly from my personal experiences of being a former migrant student and a current migrant worker in Hong Kong.

China, as the largest source country of migrant students, has sent a total number of 5.86 million students to study abroad between 1978 and 2018 (Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, 2019). To most mainland Chinese students, Hong Kong is a special destination as it is both domestic and external. As a Chinese society and part of the same country, Hong Kong may be a less challenging destination for mainland Chinese students than North America and Europe, due to the relatively shorter geographic distance and assumed fewer cultural discrepancies. As a regional educational hub in Asia, Hong Kong has a good higher education system, which attracts many mainland Chinese students. However, the colonial history and the “one country, two systems” framework of Hong Kong make it “external” to mainland Chinese (Li and Bray, 2007). Mainland Chinese students are not only required to apply for a student visa to study in Hong Kong, but also encounter challenges and problems in their migration process and post-migration study, which are mainly caused by the differences in economic, political, educational and cultural systems between Hong Kong and mainland China. Since 2012, an anti-mainlander atmosphere has emerged in Hong Kong and become intensified recently (Peng, 2016, 2019; Xu, 2015). Hostility, overt discrimination, and even violence against mainland Chinese have been observed in Hong Kong in recent years. All of these make Hong Kong a destination full of opportunities and conflicts.

Drawing on qualitative data collected between 2014 and 2017, my research on mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong focuses on two issues: communication media use of mainland Chinese students in their study and lives in Hong Kong and their school-to-work transition in Hong Kong. These issues reflect different stages and aspects of their migratory journey in Hong Kong. My article on communication media use of mainland Chinese students examines how they navigate the polymedia to maintain their emotional bonding with family members and friends in their hometowns, and simultaneously adapt to their new study and lives in Hong Kong. My research indicates that the mediated communication is both empowering and disempowering to mainland Chinese students. Their intensive communication with family members and friends in their hometowns offers them emotional support, yet also creates a virtual surveillance on them. While their mediated communication with their local classmates offers useful knowledge and practical help, it also makes them experiencing digital boundaries and exclusion from the locals. By analyzing mainland Chinese students’ mediated communication with different groups, my research highlights the complicated dynamics and consequences of media use in the lives of migrant students.   

My latest publication explores the school-to-work transition of mainland Chinese students after they complete their studies in Hong Kong. Adopting the processual perspective of both migration and youth transition, I explore how mainland Chinese students look for jobs in Hong Kong, develop their career, and make plans for their future migration or settlement. The flexibility and diversity of their school-to-work transition in Hong Kong is demonstrated in three models: proactive, challenging, and accommodative transition. In proactive transition, the students actively look for job opportunities and carefully plan their career development in Hong Kong. They value their work experiences and expect all-round development through working in Hong Kong. However, they define Hong Kong as a stepping stone for their career development or future migration. In challenging transition, the students report more frustration, failures, and struggles in their transition process. Some of them describe their transition as a trial-and-error process while others report that they are forced to grow up in this process. In accommodative transition, the students define their school-to-work as a process of taking one step and looking around before taking another step. They reconcile themselves to the opportunities and uncertainties in the transition process and usually take a happy-go-lucky attitude toward their future. These findings reveal the nuances in their work experiences and career development in Hong Kong, future plans, and subjective feelings and interpretations of the transition process. The research enriches academic discussions of the multiplicity and processual nature of school-to-work transition of students in a migratory context. As student migration and transition is still ongoing, more research is needed to further explore the characteristics, processes and consequences.


Li, M., & Bray, M. (2007). Cross‐border flows of students for higher education: Push–pull factors and motivations of mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong and Macau. Higher Education, 53, 791–818.

Migration Data Portal. (2019). International students. Accessed January 9, 2020.

Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. (2019). The statistics of migrant students in 2018 (in Chinese). Accessed January 9, 2020.

OECD. (2010). Education at a Glance 2010: OECD Indicators. OECD Publishing. Accessed November 8, 2013, doi:10.1787/eag-2010-en.

Robertson, S. (2013). Transnational Student-Migrants and the State: The Education-Migration Nexus. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Samers, M. (2010). Migration. New York: Routledge.

Waters, J.L. (2008). Education, Migration, and Cultural Capital in the Chinese Diaspora: Transnational Students between Hong Kong and Canada. New York: Cambria Press.

Xu, C. (2015). When the Hong Kong dream meets the anti-mainlandisation discourse: Mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 44, 15-47.

Author Biography

Dr. Yinni Peng is Associate Professor of Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University. She is generally interested in gender, family, migration, and social media. She recently focuses on urban parenting in China and migrant students from mainland China. She is the coauthor of the book Masculine Compromise: Migration, Family and Gender in China (University of California Press, 2016), which is the winner of the 2018 Best Book granted by RC 31 Sociology of Migration, International Sociology Association. Her work also appears in academic journals, such as Gender & Society, Sex Roles, Human Relations, The China Quarterly, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Journal of Contemporary China, Population, Space and Place, and Journal of Family Issues. She served as an editorial board member of Gender & Society between 2017 and 2019. From 2019, she is serving as an editorial board member of Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

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