“From ‘Sea Turtles’ to ‘Grassroots Ambassadors’: The Chinese Politics of Outbound Student Migration.”

Research highlighted

Liu, Jiaqi M. “From ‘Sea Turtles’ to ‘Grassroots Ambassadors’: The Chinese Politics of Outbound Student Migration.” International Migration Review, (November 2021). https://doi.org/10.1177/01979183211046572.

Jiaqi Liu, University of California, San Diego

Global student migration is on the rise. As of 2017, over six-million tertiary students were studying outside their origin countries. International students exert enormous economic impacts, contributing $45 billion to the US economy alone in 2018. On the other side of the migratory channel, China has steadily established itself as the world’s largest source country of student migrants since 1998, when the earliest UNESCO data are available, with the global percentage of Chinese student migrants more than doubling from 7% in 1998 to 17% in 2017.

Given that China is the world’s most populous country, it may not be surprising that China also has the largest number of overseas students. However, the mammoth size of the Chinese student population abroad is not a historical constant. In 1978, when China began promoting large-scale outbound student migration, it had only 860 overseas students. In less than four decades, this number ballooned by 535 times to 460,000 in 2014. Scholars attribute this dramatic growth to a constellation of domestic factors, including the rising Chinese middle class and their conversion of economic capital into cultural capital, China’s competitive domestic education system, the Confucian pursuit of better education, the brokerage of commercial education agents, and pull factors in destination countries.

Nonetheless, the existing literature on international student migration/mobility (ISM) pays scant attention to China’s changing policies toward outbound student migration. Constrained by the prevalent immigration bias in migration studies, scholars tend to focus on host countries’ international education and post-graduation employment policies regarding inbound student migrants, while casting less attention on sending countries. This article, by examining China, the largest origin country of student migrants in the world, illuminates how home countries regulate and strategize about overseas students.

Utilizing three qualitative methods, including a historical policy review, an ethnography in state-organized summer camps for overseas students, and interviews with student migrants and migration officials, I propose two main arguments. First, I argue that the Chinese outbound student migration politics – which I define as the collectivity of the homeland state’s policies, practices, and rhetorics toward overseas students – serves three policy objectives: economic, governmental, and geopolitical. These objectives, however, are not set in stone. Rather, their relative significance ebbs and flows, depending on the sending country’s specific socioeconomic and political conditions. As I show, following decades of prioritizing the economic and governmental impacts of student returnees (haigui, or colloquially “sea turtles”) in boosting the domestic economy and maintaining political stability, the Chinese state now gives growing weight to student migrants’ geopolitical value as “grassroots ambassadors” (minjian dashi) in expanding China’s global influence and enhancing national image abroad. This geopolitical reorientation has become particularly salient under the Xi Jinping leadership, as China adopts more assertive soft power strategies in pursuit of global supremacy.

Drawing on ethnographic and interview data, my second argument suggests that the geopolitics-focused reorientation of China’s OSM policy may not be well received among student migrants nor fully implemented by migration officials at the grassroots or local level. Whereas Chinese students faced surging espionage accusations across the world in recent years, I refrain from taking for granted the close political ties between the Chinese state and overseas students, as depicted in rhetorical flourish by the Western media and Chinese national strategies. Instead, I examine the on-the-ground disjuncture between the central Chinese state, student migrants, and frontline bureaucrats. Based on grounded empirical research, I shed new light on the OSM politics as a contentious field where state ambitions crosscut individual desires and where national grand plans are confronted with flexible local improvisation.

In particular, I conducted participant observation in three state-run, voluntary retreats for overseas students in an emigrant hometown in southeast China. Following my interviews with migration officials, I was invited by these trips’ organizers to participate in three such events. In the end, I carried out over 100 hours of participant observation in these trips over July and August 2019. The summer trips provided an ideal lens to closely examine the quotidian operation of outbound student migration policies, as well as the deep-running tensions between national grand plans, local bureaucratic improvisation, and student migrants’ own desires.

My tripartite model of outbound student migration politics – economic, governmental, and geopolitical – strives to facilitate scholarly dialogue between ISM and diaspora studies. While the burgeoning mobility paradigm emphasizes neoliberalism’s crucial role in promoting the transition from international education to labor immigration in destination countries, this article pushes China to center stage and examines the homeland state’s changing, yet-unabating, interests in regulating and positioning overseas students in both national policies and local implementation.

Author Bio

Jiaqi M. Liu is a PhD candidate at the University of California, San Diego, studying the political sociology of international migration.  Building on multidisciplinary training and professional experiences in sociology, international politics, and law, Jiaqi adopts mixed qualitative methods to explore the crossroads between international migration, diaspora politics, citizenship laws, and transborder governance. His articles have appeared at International Migration Review and Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies and won the 2020 Aristide Zolberg Distinguished Student Scholar Award from the American Sociological Association.

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