Transnational education, rising nationalism, racialization and spaces of exclusion: Chinese overseas students from Shenzhen to Lakeside, USA

Shanshan Jiang, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Watch a lecture video on these two articles

Research Highlighted

Jiang, S. (2020). Diversity without integration? Racialization and Spaces of Exclusion in International Higher Education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 1-16.

Jiang, S. (2021). The Call of the Homeland: Transnational Education and the Rising Nationalism among Chinese Overseas Students. Comparative Education Review65(1).

These two research articles were developed from a larger transnational study on higher education mobility and the co-constitutiveness of class, race, and urban space. I started this project three years ago, hoping to capture a unique moment of transnational education mobility between China and the US. At that time, President Xi Jinping just abolished his term limit, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is expanding overseas, the US-China trade war escalated under Trump administration, and in the US, federal and state funding for public universities in the US were severely cut. I have intended to examine, how, through educational mobility, the economic, educational, and housing transformations of one city in China influence the uneven class and racial relations of another in the US. To do this, I employed a transnational ethnography to follow Chinese students as they migrate between their hometown Shenzhen and the host city that I called Lakeside. These two sites are uniquely situated within the global student migration, racial relations, and urban transformations. In the late 1970s, China’s Special Economic Zone (SEZ) policy made Shenzhen one of the first cities in the nation to experiment with the market economy. As a result, an emerging urban elite class has benefited significantly from this, to use Aiwha Ong’s language, “exception to socialism”. Lakeside, a medium-sized city in the US Midwest, has a different trajectory to globalization. In the recent decade, constant budget cuts in public education pushed Lakeside University to seek additional revenues outside the state and federal government, and consequently, international student recruitment has become an important source of the new revenue. I conducted participant observation at multiple spaces in both cities, including academic (classrooms, libraries, study rooms), residential (apartments, dorms), and social (tea shops, shopping malls, restaurants, lounges, and others). I also observed weekly meetings at Chinese student organizations, where Shenzhen participants and other Chinese students built close social networks.

In Jiang (2020), the article reveals the persistence of the ideology of whiteness and culture-based exclusion, which not only racialize foreign students of color, but also engage with this student population to perpetuate white supremacy. Chinese students were oftentimes objectified as economic capital and diversity signifier. They were frequently excluded in academic, social, and residential spaces. However, participants in this study interpreted their isolated college experiences as a natural result of living in a white university town, the mentality of which reflects the perpetuation of the whiteness ideology as well as China’s state ideology of racial and ethnic unity. Both whiteness ideology and China’s state discourse on unity aim to consolidate differences to elevate the interests of the dominant groups.

While marginalized, Chinese students also voluntarily isolated themselves from local Black and Asian American communities in the university town. When these students did mingle with Black communities, such as during hip-hop events, their artistic preference of Black cultures does not necessarily translate into the appreciation of Blackness. Rather, it echoes colorblindness in new ways that separate Black characteristics in the cultural form from their roots in the lives of Black communities. To these Chinese students, Americanness is also defined by the lack of Asianness, which echoes the troubling history of the racialization of Asians as the perpetual foreigners in the US.  As a result, these Chinese students are simultaneously validating a global racial hierarchy. Through individual experiences of students, the article calls out the systemic racism in higher education institutions as well as the role of nation-states (such as students’ homelands) in forming international students’ racial understanding in the host society.  

In Jiang (2021), the article investigates how the desire for Western credentials and transnational mobility reconcile with strong nationalist sentiments among Chinese students. I argue that transnational education has become a crucial part of China’s nation-building in the era of intensified globalization. Before studying abroad, these Chinese students were raised in a family culture immersed in patriotic discourses that attribute their family’s wealth to China’s opening-up policies and centralized governance. While living overseas, these students heavily rely on PRC state-affiliated organizations and China-based media to navigate academic and social contexts in a foreign land. Organizations such as Chinese Students and Scholars Association (associated with Chinese Consulates) are important actors in immersing Chinese students with patriotic values. In the US Midwest alone, Chinese consuls are sent to over 100 universities to meet with new Chinese students. For students in Lakeside, the first lecture from these organizations teaches them that America is far from the paradise described by the “American Dream”, an image that these students may have held onto when they decided to study abroad.

In addition to the influence of PRC-affiliated student organizations, Chinese young adults in this study were immersed in pro-PRC ideologies promoted by China-based media when living overseas. The rise of nationalism in the United States since the election of Trump has also been utilized by Chinese media to foster a strong national identity among overseas Chinese. These students have read numerous articles on the “inadequacy of Western democracy” from Chinese media. They have become convinced that while the US is struggling with internal polarization, China seems to be advancing at an accelerated pace. For Shenzhen students, while transnational education is an individual pursuit, the experience of transnational education is structured by Chinese consulates, student organizations and China-based media. The seemingly contradictory existence of the transnational desire for Western education and rising nationalist sentiments work jointly in the neoliberal market economy to build entrepreneurial yet patriotic individuals. This article reveals that the movement, mobility, and fluidity endowed by transnationalism could potentially enhance the migrants’ national identity and political intolerance.

Watch a lecture video on these two articles by Shanshan Jiang

Author Bio

Shanshan Jiang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison (expected graduation May 2021). Her research focuses on the political economy of educational migration, and the transnational construction of class and racial relations through higher education globalization. Shanshan Jiang is also a lecturer in the Department of Educational Policy Studies, teaching both domestic and global education courses, such as School and Society and Globalization and Education. Shanshan graduated from University of International Relations with a B.A. in English Language and Literature and has a M.A degree in Social Sciences and Comparative Education from University of California, Los Angeles. Prior to graduate school, Shanshan worked as a project manager in an educational investment company, and as an English teacher in China. She can be contacted via email: and Twitter @sjiang33.

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