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

  • Watch a video on this paper.
  • Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    %d bloggers like this: