Learning to ‘tell China’s story well’: the constructions of international students in Chinese higher education policy

Research Highlighted

Mulvey, B., & Lo, W. Y. W. (2020). Learning to ‘tell China’s story well’: the constructions of international students in Chinese higher education policy. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1-13. doi:10.1080/14767724.2020.1835465

Our goal in this study was to understand how international students are constructed in Chinese policy texts, using a policy-as-discourse approach. We draw out the nuances and possible internal contradictions of policy texts and the various ways students’ roles are represented within them, by taking a discursive approach which is rarely used in studies on international student mobility policy, with a few exceptions (see Riaño, Mol, and Raghuram 2018b). A critical discussion of the ethical dimensions of Chinese higher education internationalisation is not present in the existing literature (e.g. Pan 2013; Zhu and Zhang, 2017; Ma and Zhou 2018; Liu and Wang 2020), despite the rapid rise of China as a destination for international students. As such, we outline the discursive constructions of the roles of international students in national policy texts and discuss these constructions in relation to a body of critical approaches to internationalisation that has developed with reference to Western internationalisation (e.g. George Mwangi et al. 2018).

In terms of the approach taken to analysing the data, we draw on the important work of Lomer (2017a) who applies a policy-as-discourse analysis to national policies in the UK. This approach can be described as broadly Foucauldian, in that discourses are seen as socially produced forms of knowledge which limit and shape what it is possible to think or express about social practices (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016).

The major themes we found in our analysis are as follows: (i) students as para-diplomats, (ii) students as a point of mutual exchange, (iii) students as future elites, (iv) students as of insufficient quality, (v) students as a potential public security threat. The dominant representation of students uncovered through the thematic analysis conceives of students as tools for the realisation of China’s foreign policy goals. This construction of students’ roles is common in other contexts such as the UK, the USA, and Canada (e.g. Wilson 2014; Trilokekar 2015; Lomer 2017a). For example, Wilson highlights how scholarship programmes in the West, such as the Fulbright and Colombo programmes (Sidhu 2006; Tran and Vu 2018) often portray international students as playing the role of a ‘para-diplomat’. However, in these contexts, the para-diplomat construction appears to have become less dominant over time, with neoliberal constructions of students becoming more common as a result of the ‘aid to trade’ (Stein and de Andreotti 2016) shift in higher education. This is in contrast to Chinese policy texts, where the construction of students as para-diplomats is primary and the recruitment of students is not undergirded by economic considerations.

The narrative of students as para-diplomats appears to change subtly over time, as international student recruitment is referenced in relation to China’s grand strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (e.g. MOE, 2017c; MOFCOM, 2018). This ‘outward’ shift is reflected in policy documents released since the inception of the BRI which increasingly employ a discourse of ‘mutual understanding’ between China and BRI countries through ISM (MOE 2019a). Indeed, a stated goal of the BRI is to ‘strengthen exchanges and mutual learning between different civilizations’ (BRI 2020). Policy texts also appear to suggest that to achieve the desired outcome of improved international relations from the recruitment of students, said students recruited by Chinese universities should not be ordinary members of their home societies. For example, the 13th five-year plan for the development of national education calls for the ‘strengthening the cultivation of elites’ through international education (MOE 2017d), and a press release on the Belt and Road Initiative includes a quote from Xu Tao, Director of the Department of International Cooperation and Exchange in the MOE, who emphasises that a goal of China’s international student recruitment is to ‘cultivate high-level talented individuals’ and to ‘train young elites and future leaders in developing countries’ (MOE 2017a).

The analysis also uncovered a theme which is present in documents from 2018 onwards: the suggestion that the ‘quality’ of international students should be improved, implying, contradictorily, that students are not future elites who are highly likely to go onto positions of influence. For example, it is suggested that ‘University admissions departments … should guarantee and continuously improve the quality of international students’ (MOE 2018b). This calls into question the idea that China is recruiting international students who will go on to become societal elites able to act as ‘interpreters’ of China in their home country (Scott-Smith 2008). Recent research, which reports that universities in China needed to lower entrance requirements in order to recruit more international students, echoes this finding (Song 2018; Liu and Wang 2020).

The final theme highlighted in this article is one in which international students are presented as requiring guidance in order to understand and obey Chinese laws. This theme echoes Ho’s (2017, 26) finding that some international students perceived that administrators were concerned with the ‘moral degradation’ of domestic students through contact with international students. This theme also emerged after 2018, possibly in response to the perceived problem of international students ‘misbehaviour’, several instances of which were reported in Chinese state-controlled media (Yan 2019). This led to an unnamed MOE official stating that universities ‘should seriously punish foreign students if they violate those rules’ in the state media outlet People’s Daily (Yan 2019). It is likely that the emerging policy construction of students as potential security threats is related to these developments. In other words, this policy is framed as a solution to the ‘problem’ of unruly international students constructed through policy discourse.

In the conclusion of this article, we seek to reflect on these findings in a critical light. We suggest that interaction between sending and host countries within the Global South clearly offers opportunities for re-thinking the fundamentally exploitative and imbalanced relationships which inform discourses contained within ISM policy in the Global North. A discourse of mutual exchange has emerged in Chinese policy texts, which seems to be fundamentally opposed to the constructions of students as valuable to the extent that they are economically or politically useful, which appear to reproduce those found in the Global North. The narrative associated with the BRI seems to hint at a move towards the kind of internationalisation conceived of in ‘soft’ critiques of internationalisation. For example, literature on global public goods often calls for a conceptualisation of internationalisation based around notions of ‘win-win’ (Marginson 2007, 331) and ‘shared prosperity’ (Stein 2017, 13) echoing the narrative of ‘mutual exchange’ in BRI related ISM policy discourse. However, policy discourses are often contradictory (e.g. O’Connor 2018), and in this case, Chinese ISM policy discourse also presents international education as a resource for securing national (geo)political advantage, and international students variously as politically docile tools for securing this national advantage and as future elites, and at same time as academically and morally deficient, and as a public security risk, effectively undermining the narrative of mutual civilisational exchange.

Mr Ben Mulvey, Education University of Hong Kong

Ben Mulvey is a PhD candidate at the Education University of Hong Kong. Ben’s research focuses on educational migration between Africa and China, and what this student flow reveals about China’s attempts to (re)shape the global “field” of higher education. He can be contacted via the following email address: bmulvey@s.eduhk.hk

Listen to an interview with Ben Mulvey; Read the summary of Ben’s interview

Read Ben’s other entries here, here and here.

Dr William Lo, Education University of Hong Kong

William Lo is an Associate Professor and the Associate Head of the Department of International Education at the Education University of Hong Kong. His research areas include higher education policy and comparative and international higher education, with a focus on East Asia. He has published more than 50 articles, chapters, books, and special journal issues. He serves as an Associate Editor for Asian Pacific Journal of Education and Higher Education Evaluation and Development. He holds a PhD in social policy from the University of Bristol.

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