Subjectivity as the site of struggle: students’ perspectives toward Sino-foreign cooperation universities in the era of discursive conflicts

Research highlighted

Han, X. (2022). Subjectivity as the Site of Struggle: Students’ Perspectives toward Sino-Foreign Cooperation Universities in the Era of Discursive Conflicts. Higher Education. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-022-00840-w

Subjectivity as the site of struggle: students’ perspectives toward sino-foreign cooperation universities in the era of discursive conflicts

As an effective solution both to education surplus in developed countries and the lack of high-quality educational resources in developing ones, the number of international branch campuses (IBCs) has gained rapid growth worldwide. During this process scholars remain suspicious about curriculum design and delivery, faculty and student recruitment, and the suitableness of the imported teaching content to the host country. Wilkins et al. (2012) go further to emphasize not only the efectiveness of teaching and learning, but students’ (subjective) perspective should be taken into account for IBCs’ further development.

However, the traditional analysis of students’ experience is inclined toward the pre-social conception of individuals, locating investigation in a value-free vacuum. When zooming in on international education, it concentrates on students’ other-directed adjustment/acculturation and focuses on the differences among dominant discourses. From the perspective of critical theorists, such efforts have placed agency and constraints into two extremes of continuum rather than examining their interpenetration, the dangers alerted by both Bourdieu and Foucault, as freeing agency from power relationships. The “already formed” view of the person (Olssen et  al., 2004) sidesteps the issue on how people’s subjectivities have been infiltrated and occupied by modern power during its changes from “explicitly overt forms or ‘oppression’” to “more covert forms…imbu[ing] with individuals’ own desires and active participation in the regulation and development of their selves” (Webb, 2011, p. 738). Based on existing critical studies of how neoliberalism realizes governance at a distance by subjectivity production and how individuals resist such politically imposed discourse, this article furthers the study of students’ self-formation and the resulted subjective evaluation toward their enrolled institutions in the era of discursive conflicts. Specifically, it adopts Foucault’s concept of ethics to empirically explore the permanent agonism in the subjectivity constitution of students who are situated between neoliberalism and authoritarianism in Chinese Sino-foreign cooperation universities (SFCUs) and the danger of their sense of lost.

The data reported were collected from in-depth interviews with sophomores and juniors in three selected SFCUs. The analysis was directed by Foucault’s ideas of power, discourse, subject/subjectivity, and critique. Special attention was paid to critique about the normalized neoliberal and authoritarian values prevailed in their enrolled institutions.

Specifically, neoliberal ideas have successfully penetrated individuals minds, demonstrated by the great faith of all the interviewees in the academic standards of the cooperation universities. Students believe SFCUs as the fair sites to “to utilize their powers of consumer choice and control” (Vincent, 1994, p. 263) and the world-class educational resources/good service they received worth the relatively high tuition fees charged. However, while neoliberalism discourse has obviously occupied the dominant position in SFCUs, China’s effort to shape authoritarian subjects has also been rewarded as the interviewees express their desire for clear instruction and direction from authority.

This study highlights the “equivocal nature” of the subject as representing “one of the best aides in coming to terms with the specifcity of power” (Foucault, 1997b, p. 212).Subjectivity is a site where power enacts and resisted/refused; it is ever-developing, instead of being “primarily or always identical to itself” (Foucault, 1997a, p. 290). THNE facilitates this process by providing students the accesses to various discourses (sometimes in conflict). While such developments change subjects’ perception/evaluation towards certain events/environment/experience, it also represents rethinking of the “critical ontology of ourselves”; students become suspicious about the “truth” and always feel “lost” as he submits himself “to ‘an experience…in which what one is oneself is, precisely, in doubt’” (Burchell, 1996, p. 30).

To conclude, Foucault’s observation that “human beings are made subjects” (1982, p. 208) cautions the danger of either taking neoliberal criteria/values for granted to explore international/transnational education experience or focusing on cultural aspects as constraints for students to respond to. From the prism of Foucault, individuals’ values, perceptions, and self-knowledge are “linked to the ways in which [they] are governed” (Dean, 1999, p. 14), simultaneously by others and by themselves: their evaluation/satisfaction is subjectively shaped by (various and conficting) discourse(s) which confne(s) “what will be known” (Mills, 2003, p. 70) and what counts as natural/true. As Foucault further alerts, “nowadays, the struggle…against the submission of subjectivity–is becoming more and more important, even though the struggles against forms of domination and exploitation have not disappeared. Quite the contrary” (1982, p. 213).

Authors’ Bio

Dr. Xiao HAN
Tianjin University

Dr Xiao HAN earned her B.A. (Economics) from Jilin University and Ph.D (Education) from the Education University of Hong Kong. She worked for two years as a postdoctoral fellow at Lingnan University and then took the position of Beiyang associate professor at the School of Education, Tianjin University. Her research is trans-disciplinary-based, focusing on critical policy analysis, international/transnational higher education, and Foucault/Bourdieu studies. Her works have been published in international journals such as Journal of Education Policy, Higher Education, and Policy and Society. Email:

Managing editor: Lisa(Zhiyun) Bian

The Experience of European Researchers in China: A Comparative Capital Perspective

Research highlighted

Braun Střelcová, A., Cai, Y., & Shen, W. (2022). The Experience of European Researchers in China: A Comparative Capital Advantage Perspective. Journal of the Knowledge Economy. doi:10.1007/s13132-022-00982-3

The experience of European researchers in China: A comparative capital perspective

This paper examines the emerging trend of international academic migration from Europe to mainland China, by focusing on the experience of European researchers working in Chinese universities and research institutes. China has become a global power not only economically and politically, but also in higher education and research. The Chinese government (at national, regional or institutional level) has long attracted Chinese talents abroad back to China, but in recent years, it has also created incentives for foreigners to contribute to China’s development of science, technology, and innovation. Although research on this group of migrants is emerging, relatively little attention has been paid on the individual experiences of foreigners who pursue an academic career in China. This paper therefore aims at investigating the motivations, job satisfactions and career prospects of a particular group of international academic migrants, namely Europeans. Specifically, we ask three research questions: What are their motivations? What are their experience? And finally, what are their future prospects? In constructing our analytical framework, we draw on Bourdieu’s theory of practice, namely his four forms of capital (economic, social, cultural and symbolic) as applied to the academic labour market as a global field which we supplement with a push-pull model. The core rationale of our analytical framework is that academic migrants’ decisions on migrating to and remaining in a country are driven by their perceived comparative capital advantage. Such capital is divided into four forms: Economic (e.g., funding, salary, equipment), social (e.g., membership in research teams, consortia, associations, and other networks), cultural (e.g., language skills and other embodied skills, education, cross-cultural competences, as well as research-related artefacts such as research data) and symbolic (e.g., publication, funding track record and reputation in the community). The data comes from 28 semi-structured interviews conducted in 2017-2018, mainly in Beijing and Shanghai both in person and online, with 14 social scientists and humanities scholars (SSH) and 14 researchers in engineering and natural sciences (ENS).


Looking at our interviewees’ motivation through lens of our four categories – economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital –we see that they have professional and personal motives. Notably, ENS researchers expected gaining economic capital through access to job opportunities and research funding, difficult to find in other parts of the world. Some Chinese universities offer good working conditions, support to their international staff, or dual career offers for researchers-couples. In addition, some ENS researchers stressed their desire to grow contacts within rapidly improving Chinese science. Many researchers were motivated by their personal connections, research partners, former supervisors, students, and colleagues. Other people got an offer based on existing inter-institutional cooperation in their previous job. In contrast, SSH researchers’ motivation was more tightly related to the region-specific data, archival work, fieldwork or materials only available inside the country. Many SSH researchers had an early experience of travelling or studying in China which ignited their passion. What’s more, Chinese universities and research institutes were actively pursuing the recruitment of foreign researchers due to their track record. Therefore, the researchers’ previous experience, degrees, and international networks were all symbolic assets. In conclusion, the expected capital advantage differed from SSH and ENS researchers. ENS migrated to China with less cultural knowledge about China, pursuing specific scientific agendas. SSH researchers’ move was motivated by China itself and country-specific data.

Experience working in Chinese academia

After arrival, once they mastered the basics about local environment, their job satisfaction tended to be high, and most people were relatively satisfied in a new, dynamic Chinese environment. Notably, there were three kinds of people. Firstly, around one third of interviewees were people whose reality exceeded expectations. These were all senior ENS researchers. They reported being happy about the research freedom they had, having access to funding, facilities, and overall great institutional support. Not being fluent in Chinese, they significantly relied on administration, colleagues, assistants, and students, which lowered their administrative burden. Almost a half of the participants were those whose reality met expectation. These researchers were satisfied about the support they got, and frequently drew on their previous experience with Chinese institutions. Although they could understand the local system quite well, they still perceived the environment as opaque and chaotic. And finally, six people belonged in the third group of people, those who were not satisfied. These were all social scientists, and most of them junior scholars. They complained about low salaries and unsatisfactory funding. They felt isolated in Chinese academia, and disadvantaged in getting new social and cultural capital. They thought the local research culture was too challenging to adapt to. As a result, they couldn’t use their existing capital, or gain new capital.

Career prospects

After some time, researchers felt that they reached a limit with regards to gaining new capital. They realised they were losing their comparative advantage for several reasons. Namely, ENS researchers thought that larger pots of funding were hard to get due to (overt or tacit) funders’ nationality requirements. They saw a glass ceiling to a foreigner’s promotion ladder in Chinese academia. In contrast, SSH researchers complained about few funding opportunities, difficulties when accessing fieldwork, research infrastructure, and administrative support. In terms of social capital, researchers suffered from a slow loss of international visibility because their Chinese institutions did not allow them leave China for longer business trips, or research stays abroad. Most European researchers, especially all in ENS fields, couldn’t publish or submit applications in Chinese, and they relied on assistants as their go-betweeners vis-a-vis administration.

Furthermore, professional isolation was an additional point of concern. The European researchers were, frequently perceived as short-term “guests” rather than long-term colleagues. Last but not least, mainly SSH researchers (as well as a few natural scientists) mentioned that the political control over universities increased. The SSH researchers voiced a concern about shrinking academic freedom and ideological control. For ENS, additional problems arose when ordering material from abroad or exchanging data with their partners abroad, which could be a barrier in building up international collaborative projects. With limited potential for growth in terms professional power in China, they feared the loss of global visibility. In the end, they started looking for opportunities elsewhere, or predicted other foreign employees would leave China. We found out that some factors could not be explained by our analytical framework – many issues related to the wider social and cultural environment, high costs of living, expensive healthcare, insurance, and expenses for children’s education. Fundamentally, their visas, work and residency permits were tied to their employer’s goodwill and required regular, lengthy renewals.


Migrant academics as global knowledge workers are essential facilitators of international research cooperation. In our article, we looked at the motivations, experience and career prospects of Europeans in Chinese academia. We found out that their careers in Chinese academia gave them the opportunity to get economic, social, cultural and symbolic capitals, and hence increased their competitiveness globally. Yet, the job satisfaction of most people tended to decline after some years in China, due to reasons which went beyond the professional realm. Our research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has, together with the changing global geopolitical situation, affected international academic migration. Since early 2020, limitations on entry to China continue, and the flight restrictions were further aggravated by the Russia-Ukraine war. Therefore, this topic will remain to be relevant in the future, and we invite further research on this topic.


由于中国科学技术的迅猛发展,近年来有越来越多的西方学者到中国工作。 但是,对这一新生现象的研究却很少。我们的研究通过访谈28 名在中国工作的欧洲学者,分析了他们到中国大学工作的动机、满意度和职业前景等。为此,我们将布迪厄的资本理论与“推拉模型“结合,构建了一个比较资本优势的分析框架。 我们的研究发现中最有政策启示作用的是,中国大学对自然科学和工程学的欧洲学者最有吸引力,但是这些学者对工作的满意度往往会随着时间的推移而降低,最终可能会选择返回西方学术界工作。

Authors’ Bio

Andrea Braun Střelcová, Max Planck Institute

Andrea Braun Střelcová is a fellow at the “China in the Global System of Science” research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and PhD student at the Higher Education Group, Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University in Finland. Email:

Dr Yuzhuo Cai, Tampere University

Dr Yuzhuo Cai a Senior Lecturer and Adjunct Professor at the Higher Education Group, Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University, Co-Director of the Sino-Finnish Education Research Centre jointly coordinated by Tampere University and Beijing Normal University, and Editor-in-Chief of the Triple Helix journal. Email:

Prof Wei Shen, Deakin University

Prof Wei Shen is the Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor (International Relations) at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He is the holder of the Jean Monnet Chair in EU – China relations awarded by the European Commission at ESSCA School of Management in Angers, France. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Asia-Europe Journal and Vice-Chair of Europe-Asia Center in Brussels, Belgium. Email:

managing editor: Tong Meng

Gendered experiences at academic conferences: A comparative study of female Chinese STEM PhD students in China and New Zealand

Research highlighted

Yang, L., Smith, J., & Meyer, F. (2022). Gendered experiences at academic conferences: A comparative study of female Chinese STEM PhD students in China and New ZealandInternational Journal of Multidisciplinary Perspectives in Higher Education7(1), 71–97.

It is a well-known phenomenon that women are underrepresented in academia, especially in STEM fields. Although it is reported that the number of female doctoral students engaging in academia has increased in recent years worldwide, women still make up only about one-third of academic researchers in STEM fields in China and New Zealand. They were reported facing implicit biases, gender-based discrimination, and have low psychological well-being in different settings in academia, in labs or at conferences. Academic conferences offer opportunities for PhD students to present their own research, network with others, and pursue opportunities for post-doctoral positions. However, conferences are inevitably gendered spaces. Although there have been prior studies of female PhD students’ conference experiences worldwide, limited prior research has been conducted in Chinese settings.

This small-scale, qualitative study compares the experiences of Chinese students studying in New Zealand and study in China. We draw on Carlone and Johnson’s (2007) model of science identity development which stresses that identity development requires interactions with others and includes three interrelated and overlapping dimensions: competence, performance, and recognition. The formation of science identity is influenced by students’ gender identity and the locations they are studying in. As China and New Zealand are both significant higher education providers in the Asia-Pacific region, but vary in social system, cultural context, and mode of doctoral education, the comparison of Chinese female students’ experience can help isolate gender identity from contextual factors. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to gather data from four domestic female Chinese PhD students in a Chinese university and five international female Chinese PhD students studying in New Zealand.

For female Chinese PhD students both in China and New Zealand, their decisions to pursue a PhD were mostly driven by their aspirations for a career in academia or related industries. They felt a ‘pressure of age’, from both from the job market and their family. ‘Involution’ (内卷 in Chinese), a term that describes the phenomenon in which higher education degree holders compete for entry-level positions in industries and universities, was highlighted by study participants. Our study participants reported pressure to earn their degrees before a certain age (35) to compete for these industry jobs. Also, participants noted that Chinese parents generally see marriage, rather than a career, as a pathway for social mobility for their daughters, putting more emphasis on their daughter’s marriage than academic success. This pressure likely negatively influenced their development of a strong science identity as they felt that their families and society valued a different identity more strongly – that of a wife and mother.

Our sample of PhD students in both China and New Zealand reported that in their experiences, especially in bioscience fields, the gender gap at least in the number of  PhD students seemed to be reducing. However, participants reported that even with a more equal gender distribution, they were acutely aware of a ‘glass ceiling’ that restricts female students from success in STEM research fields. For example, they noted that supervisors had lower expectations of their work, seemed to prefer to take on male PhD students, or did not believe female researchers needed a PhD. In addition, in the sampled Chinese university, participants reported that the resources distributed to female PhD students, including supervision time as well as conference and networking opportunities, were relatively limited compared to those provided to male students. Further, although they faced these inequities, our participants noted ‘a culture of silence’ in which they felt their experiences of gender bias would be viewed as a ‘little drama in their head’ if reported. In contrast, Chinese female doctoral students studying in New Zealand reported better experiences compared to their counterparts in China. They described a gender-balanced, positive, and supportive community of researchers in their STEM fields. However, gender was still acutely felt; one participant in this study drew a blueprint of a post-gendered world:

It would be better if we do not over-focus on the word ‘female’. If a woman has high achievement, like Chinese researcher Tu, Youyou, the media or the public always report her as a ‘female’ scientist. If an actual gender balance is achieved, we would not emphasise her female identity.

In terms of the comparison of their conference participation, study participants reported a noticeable gap in opportunities to attend conferences between those in China and in New Zealand. While the latter had attended both national and international academic conferences in their research field, the former rarely went to conferences regardless of the stage in their PhD. Participants’ attitudes towards conference attendance also varied by the location of their PhD study. Female Chinese PhD students in New Zealand tended to see themselves as ‘presenters’, whereas female Chinese PhD students studying in China tended to define themselves as ‘listeners’ or ‘learners’. Participants in China reported more obstacles to attending conferences, where they reported a lack of faculty support and fraught supervisor-student relationships. In addition, Chinese domestic students felt that they could not dedicate time to attend and present at conferences without falling behind on lab work and writing journal articles.

To conclude, this study found that gender identity perceptions continue to have a strong influence on the development of scientific identities among female Chinese PhD students, regardless of where they opted to complete their PhD studies. The interaction of personal (i.e., the pressure of age) and organizational factors (i.e., the perception of a glass ceiling) compounded the difficulty our study participants studying in China faced in their doctoral education, leading to more psychological and emotional pressure compared to  participants studying in New Zealand. Meanwhile, the absence of psychological support from Chinese universities made our study participants feel more isolated in seeking emotional support during their study than their counterparts studying in New Zealand.

Attending conferences is one key mechanism for the development of a science identity and is often a stepping stone into a career. Understanding the experiences of female PhD students in attending conferences is a first step in making a positive change toward a non-biased and inclusive academic environment that provides equitable opportunities for women in STEM fields. To support women in succeeding in academia, academic institutions and the wider society needs to combat persistent gender biases in order to support female PhD students’ science identity development.

Note: the larger study of New Zealand female PhD students’ conference experience in STEM fields named Small Fish in Big Ponds: Female Doctoral STEM Students’ Conference Experiences and Science Identity Development will be presented in AERA 2022 annual meeting on 25th April in San Diego, United States.



Authors’ Bio

Liuning Yang, the University of Auckland

Liuning Yang is a PhD candidate in the School of Learning, Development and Professional Practice, Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. Liuning’s research include the cultural capital theory of Pierre Bourdieu, educational policy, education equity of rural-urban migrants in China. Email:

Dr Jo Smith, the University of Auckland

Dr Jo Smith is a Senior Lecturer in education policy and leadership in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. Her research is situated at the intersection of policy and practice and examines the systems that both hinder and help schools and school systems enact reforms aimed at improving outcomes. Email:

Dr Frauke Meyer, the University of Auckland

Dr Frauke Meyer is a Senior Lecturer in the Master of Educational Leadership program in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. Her research is concerned with school improvement for equity, school leadership, and interpersonal practices to improve equity in outcomes for marginalized learners. She has published and presented her research nationally and internationally in high-ranking journals and at conferences. Email:

Cultural Capital and Elite University Attendance in China

Research highlighted

Anning, Hu. & Xiaogang, Wu. (2021). Cultural Capital and Elite University Attendance in China. British Journal of Sociology of Education 42(8): 1265-1293.

Despite a plethora of research, the association between cultural capital and educational inequality does not appear to follow the same pattern. Against this backdrop, an increasing number of scholars have shifted attention to the socio-institutional context in which the consequences of cultural capital vary. This is a necessary enterprise since the concept of cultural capital was proposed in the first place in the French context. In this article, we make contributions to the literature by investigating how cultural capital, among college attendees, relates to the likelihood of attending an elite university when most students are subject to standardized tests.

The research environment is China, where the standardized National College Entrance Examination (NCEE), commonly known as gaokao in China, is institutionalized as an annually-held prerequisite academic examination for the entrance into almost all higher education institutions at the undergraduate level. It is standardized in the sense that both examination subjects and examination questions are highly structured and oriented toward the evaluation of cognitive skills. Hence, what we are interested in is: under the NCEE, how cultural capital relates to one’s chance of attending an elite university. For the purpose of comparison, we also examine how cultural capital is associated with elite university attendance by virtue of exempting the NCEE, a supplementary pathway to college that is geared to overcome the NCEE’s partial emphasis of cognitive skills by taking into account the exceptional or special talents of students.

Drawing on data from the Beijing College Students Panel Survey (BCSPS), we show that (1) on average, objectified cultural capital is negatively associated with the likelihood of attending an elite university whereas embodied cultural capital shows a positive effect; (2) both types of cultural capital enhance the proficiencies of extracurricular activities, which are negatively associated with all quantiles of the NCEE score so as to curtail the odds of getting into an elite university; (3) both types of cultural capital cannot guarantee the attendance of an elite university by improving one’s learning capabilities, since learning capabilities only raise the middle and lower quantiles of the NCEE score; (4) finally, only embodied cultural capital helps one attend an elite university by virtue of exempting the NCEE.

This study highlights how a standardized examination system could come into force to affect the association between cultural capital and the formation of horizontal stratification. Under the NCEE, at least based on the experiences of China, objectified cultural capital is a damping factor for people’s likelihood of getting into a selective university. Although it has the potential of improving students’ learning capabilities, such an improvement does not seem to affect the high end of the NCEE performances. In this regard, the theory of cultural reproduction seems to be hard to maintain when the access to selective educational resources is more structurally determined. Since objectified cultural capital differentials in a population has always been an indicator of the existing class stratification, the negative effect under the NCEE implies that standardized examination could play the role of the “equalizer” in societies with a holistic evaluation system.

This article also suggests that the process of cultural reproduction as described by Bourdieu could come into being if such a standardized examination system is lifted or circumvented. Embodied cultural capital, for instance, is noted to enhance one’s chance of getting into an elite university through exemption of the NCEE. Although the evaluations faced by those who are exempted from the NCEE are not identical with the holistic evaluations adopted in other societies, the gist is indeed similar. Unsurprisingly from the Bourdiausian perspective, this pathway to higher education significantly attracts those with higher endowment of embodied cultural capital, thus bridging cultural capital and educational outcome.

The mechanisms undergirding the link between cultural capital and elite university attendance under the NCEE are more nuanced than conventionally assumed. Metaphorically speaking, cultural capital is a double-edged sword: objectified cultural capital simultaneously raises and lowers one’s standardized test score. Nevertheless, the positive mechanism only works for the middle and lower quantiles of the test score, but the negative mechanism can be extended to the higher quantiles. These two mechanisms jointly lead to the overall negative influences of objectified cultural capital on the odds of getting into an elite university. As for embodied cultural capital, it also plays both a positive and a negative role: it reduces the odds of elite university attendance by weakening students’ performance in the NCEE on the one hand, but helps one get into a selective institution through NCEE exemption on the other hand. Relatively, the overall positive effect of embodied cultural capital suggests that the positive pathway overrides the negative one. Hence, the educational consequences of cultural capital are not a simple yes-or-no matter, but a combination of multiple possibly mutually competing forces. More mechanism-oriented research is called for to reveal the complex formative process in the educational consequences of cultural capital.

Authors’ Bio

Dr. Anning Hu, Fudan University

Dr. Anning Hu is a Professor of Sociology and the vice Dean of Graduate School at Fudan University. His research interests include social inequality, education, religion, trust, culture, and social research methods. Hu has published over 90 academic articles and three monographs, with research appearing in major sociological outlets, such as British Journal of Sociology, Sociology, Social Science Research, Journal of Marriage and Family, Poetics, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, Demographic Research, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Sociological Quarterly, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, and The China Quarterly, to name a few. He can be contacted by

Dr. Xiaogang Wu, NYU Shanghai

Dr. Xiaogang Wu is the Yufeng (御风) Global Professor of Social Science, Area Head of Social Sciences, and Director of the Center for Applied Social and Economic Research (CASER) at NYU Shanghai. Wu also holds an appointment as Professor of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Science at NYU. Wu was the recipient of the US National Academy of Education/Spencer Post-doctoral Research Fellowship for 2006 to 2007, the Asia and Asian American Early Career Award from the American Sociological Association in 2007, and the Prestigious Fellowship in Humanities and Social Sciences by the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong in 2012. Wu is currently the President of the International Chinese Sociological Association and the founding editor of the Chinese Sociological Review. He can be contacted by

“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).

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.