Social inequality in a ‘hyper-mobile’ society: intra-national mobilities and formal education in China

Mulvey, B., & Li, B. (2023). Social inequality in a ‘hyper-mobile’society: intra-national mobilities and formal education in ChinaJournal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 1-19.

Background: mobility for education in China

The aim of this paper is to introduce a novel perspective on the relationship between social class, formal education, and mobility to the Chinese context. China is a ‘hyper-mobile’ society with a high level of social inequality, making it a useful case to examine this connection. A notable example of work on this topic is that which explores ‘circuits of schooling’ in various contexts (e.g. Ball et al.,1995). However, except for the limited body of work on circuits of schooling, sociology of education as field has largely overlooked the importance of movements of people for various reasons. In this study we advocate a focus on the socially classed nature of mobility, conceived of as a resource in itself. As such, in this study we seek to highlight how individuals from a range of social class factions have utilised spatial mobility as means achieving social mobility or reproducing social status.

Geographical inequalities in educational resources between different regions, rural and urban areas, and even within areas (Wu et al., 2018; Young & Hannum, 2020) are crucially important factors necessitating educational mobility in China. The relationship between educational mobilities and educational inequalities in China has been explored, albeit indirectly, through two bodies of literature that have thus far remained separate. At one end of the mobility spectrum are families with Urban household registration (hukou) who employ residential relocation as a means of accessing educational resources associated with social reproduction. At the other end of the spectrum, rules around household registration also create difficulties for rural families that have migrated to urban areas which are relatively well documented in existing literature.

We argue that it is necessary to focus explicitly on processes of mobility in themselves, as a means of making sense of inequalities in the higher education system, as well as, more broadly, the mechanisms through which the significant spatial inequalities present in China are maintained.

The research

The data presented are from a larger research project focusing on the relationship between education and mobility in China. We conducted in-depth semi structured interviews (n=40) with final year master’s degree students at prestigious university located in a metropolitan city in southern China. Based on a screening questionnaire, we recruited  students from three class factions, rather than the more common two, in order to capture experiences within the upper-middle-class, which is distinguished within the literature on class and education in China (e.g. Goodman, 2016). The factions were as follows: non-affluent (n=14), lower-middle-class (n=13), and upper-middle-class (n=13).

Key findings

Overall, the paper seeks to emphasise how mobility for education now occupies a central position in the practices of families from a remarkably wide array of backgrounds. But at the same time, the mobility trajectories of the young people interviewed for this study varied markedly along lines of social class. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the importance of ‘motility’, or the field of possibilities relative to movement, and use of them, as a potentially important factor contributing to educational inequalities in China. It explores how non-affluent families tend to have low motility, in the sense that the range of options for mobility were extremely restricted. These families tended to be highly mobile, but had a restricted range of mobility options. These narratives were contrasted with the more strategic relocation of middle-class families. Education related mobility strategies often involved mobility between urban areas, or from peripheries to centres of smaller cities. These movements served as a means of competing in the context of ‘social congestion’ at all levels of the Chinese education system. Upper-middle-class families, in contrast, displayed high levels of motility, which ultimately meant they experienced both mobility and immobility as freedom.

The central argument is not only that the experiences of intra-national mobility outlined here are different. It is also that the decision-making processes of all families take place within the same ‘gyroscope-like’ society. Thus, the familial mobility decisions of families at the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of the kinetic hierarchy are inevitably bound up in the same logic. Overall, the contribution of this study is to highlight the intertwinement of the ‘politics of mobility’ (Cresswell, 2010) and the politics of education. We propose that vastly different levels of motility as a form of capital between social groups is potentially an important factor, worthy of further exploration, contributing to the growing inequality of educational opportunity in China (Gruijters et al., 2019).


Ball, S. J., Bowe, R., & Gewirtz, S. (1995). Circuits of Schooling: A Sociological Exploration of Parental Choice of School in Social Class Contexts. The Sociological Review, 43(1), 52–78.

Cresswell, T. (2010). Towards a Politics of Mobility. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28(1), 17–31.

Gruijters, R. J., Chan, T. W., & Ermisch, J. (2019). Trends in educational mobility: How does China compare to Europe and the United States? Chinese Journal of Sociology, 5(2), 214–240.

Wu, Q., Edensor, T., & Cheng, J. (2018). Beyond Space: Spatial (Re)Production and Middle-Class Remaking Driven by Jiaoyufication in Nanjing City, China. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 42(1), 1–19.

Young, N.A.E., and Hannum, E. (2020). Childhood Inequality and Schooling in China’s Cities. In Clothey, R., Dilworth, R. (Eds) China’s Urban Future and the Quest for Stability. McGill-Queen’s Press.

Author‘s bio

Dr Benjamin Mulvey, University of Glasgow

Benjamin Mulvey is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Glasgow. He was previously a Research Grants Council Post-doctoral Fellow at the Education University of Hong Kong, and a Visiting Researcher at the University of Sydney and University College London. His work is interdisciplinary, and is broadly related to the sociology of international higher education, with a particular focus on China. It has been published in journals across the fields of education studies, sociology, and geography. These include Higher Education, Sociology, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and British Journal of Sociology of Education, among others.

Boya Li, Western Sydney University

Boya Li is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. Her researcher interests lie in migration, transnationalism and Chinese studies. Her PhD project explores national identifications and civic engagement of young PRC-born migrants in Sydney. She has worked as a research assistant on several projects in the field of international higher education in Hong Kong, international student mobility in the UK, and diversity and multiculturalism in cultural institutions in Australia.

Managing editor: Tong Meng

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