Compromise and complicity in international student mobility: the ethnographic case of Indian medical students at a Chinese university

Yang, P. (2018). Compromise and complicity in international student mobility: the ethnographic case of Indian medical students at a Chinese university. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.

PD Yang

Author during field trip in India, January 2016


Dr Peidong Yang

National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


Abstract (中文摘要

Existing scholarship on international student mobility (ISM) often draws on Bourdieu to interpret such mobility as a strategy of capital conversion used by privileged classes to reproduce their social advantage. This perspective stems from and also reinforces a rationalistic interpretation of student mobility. A shift of focus to interAsian educational mobilities involving non-elite individuals and institutions can reveal logics of behavior and of social interaction that are at discrepancy with the dominant perspective, thereby advancing the theorization of educational mobilities. This paper examines a case of Indian youths of less affluent backgrounds pursuing English-medium medical degrees (MBBS) at a provincial university in China. Through ethnography, the paper illustrates how various parties – individual, organizational and institutional – to this somewhat ‘unlikely’ project of knowledge mobility follow the discrepant logics of compromise and complicity to seek to realize their educational desires, social aspirations, and organizational objectives amidst realities of class disadvantage and resource inadequacy.



目前关于国际学生流动的学术文献通常透过社会学家布迪厄的理论视角,将流动阐释为社会优势阶层通过资本转化从而达到优势再生的一种手段。这个分析视角既是基于对学生流动的一种理性化阐释,同时也强化了这种理性阐释的主流地位。然而,若将视线转移至当前亚洲区域内的非”精英”学生流动趋势,主流分析视角所不能解释的一些教育相关的社会行为逻辑则被凸显了出来,从而成为推动国际学生流动理论的契机。本文对家境并非优越的印度学生在中国某高校攻读英文授课临床医学的案例进行观察。通过民族志方法,本文描述并分析此案例中不同角色 ——个人、机构、制度——是如何在社会劣势与资源不足的情况下,通过“妥协”与“共识”两种行为逻辑来尽可能实现他们各自的个人以及机构目的。


This article examines a thus-far little-known and arguably ‘unlikely’ case of international student mobility (ISM): Indian youths of less affluent backgrounds pursuing English-medium undergraduate medical education (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, or MBBS) in China.

Indian students started heading to China for MBBS in their ‘hundreds’ since early 2000s (Aiyar, 2006). As of 2015, the majority of the 16,694 Indian students in China (CAFSA, 2016) can be assumed to be on MBBS programmes, although no precise statistics seems available. Students from India are very likely the largest single-nationality group among foreign students pursuing English-medium MBBS in China. In recent years, China has also become the top destination for Indian students seeking medical training abroad (Mishra, 2012).

Prevailing theorization of ISM tends to employ a Bourdieusian theoretical framework and assumes mobility to be ‘overwhelmingly pursued by privileged individuals’ (Waters, Brooks, & Pimlott-Wilson, 2011, p. 460). The underlying logic of ISM, according to this dominant perspective, is about using study-abroad as a ‘social alchemy’ to realize the conversion between economic, social and cultural capitals, thus ultimately to reproduce class advantage.

The case of Indian MBBS students in China raises numerous points of discrepancy with this prevailing narrative. Most Indian students I encountered during my fieldwork at a provincial university (pseudonym ‘CNU’) in southeastern China came from non-affluent families in small-town or rural India. They belong to the emergent lower middle classes in India, with little true class advantage or ‘eliteness’ to speak of. Their destination – Chinese provincial capital city ‘CN’ – lies outside the coveted global spheres of elite knowledge production and circulation. There was also limited evidence that their India-to-China mobility would eventually generate any meaningful ‘cultural capital’ for them.

Thus, my paper sets out to understand and articulate the logics or rationalities underpinning such a ‘discrepant’ case of ISM. In a nutshell, I argue that the mundane thought processes, decision making, behavioral patterns, and social interactions of the various parties to this case can be understood in terms of what I call the logics of compromise and complicity.

The study is based on three short but intensive ethnographic fieldtrips conducted in China and Indian over 2014-2016.



The term ‘compromise’ captures the very preconditions of this case of ISM, which in turn underpin various actors’ behaviours.

With government-subsidized public medical schools being extremely competitive while the private alternative extremely expensive, coming to CNU, China for MBBS could be understood primarily as a compromise made by a group of Indian doctor-aspirants who are academically as well as financially excluded from medical education in India.

One manifestation of this state of compromise was the manner in which my Indian informants and their parents settled upon the destination country and institution for study. Contrary to an informed, calculative and careful decision-making process that a rationalistic interpretation of ISM tends to portray, my informants’ choices were often made in a haphazard way, shaped by elements of chance and contingency. Many of them admitted to having, to greater or lesser extent, made ‘blind choices’ when deciding upon coming to China for MBBS, and in choosing institutions.

On the other hand, it was found that CNU’s international MBBS programme suffered from serious issues with regard to admission screening and programme quality. In my ethnographic field trips and interactions with the Indian students, I encountered multiple instances – some of which rather unsettling – that indicate this provincial Chinese university’s own compromised situation as an educational provider.

In short, for tuition fee revenue and supposed prestige of ‘internationalization’, CNU compromised its admission standards to accept Indian students (among other nationalities) who were themselves operating on a logic of compromise due to their own lack of choice. Meanwhile, owing to resource inadequacy and lack of preparedness, CNU was only able to offer an education of clearly compromised quality.



In his work on rural China, social anthropologist Steinmüller’s (2010) defines a ‘community of complicity’ as one characterized by shared embarrassing (self-)knowledge. He argues that the sharing of embarrassing (self-)knowledge reaffirms a sense of community membership and sociality amidst contradictions and social tensions.

Borrowing this anthropological notion of complicity, I argue that the various parties to the India-to-China MBBS project at CNU can be regarded as forming a community of complicity of sorts. Here, complicity entails embarrassment that is mutually known, but unspoken to preserve the veneer of normalcy and respectability. Its ultimate aim is mutual accommodation and conflict avoidance.

Ethnographically, I show how complicity exists between the Indian students and CNU; between the students and their parents; and between the students and the educational intermediaries that facilitated their mobility.

Between the Indian MBBS students and CNU, complicity manifests in a mutual silence about each other’s compromises, which serves to sustain this otherwise precarious educational project. Put bluntly, the Indian students refrain from complaining about CNU’s problematic programme because they are acutely aware of their own lack of choice. On the other hand, equally conscious of their mediocre institutional standing and resources and the lack of readiness in running medical education in English, CNU sometimes uses measures such as leaking exam questions to help students progress in their studies instead of insisting on academic rigour. Maintaining this mutual complicitous silence helped both parties avoid situations of awkwardness and potential conflict where both parties could be greatly embarrassed or indeed provoked should their respective compromises be exposed.

Between the students and their parents, complicity manifests in a mutual silence and a lack of communication about the problematic realities of their MBBS programme in CNU China. Such a silence or lack of communication is difficult to comprehend considering that parents have invested heavily into the students’ education despite humble family socioeconomic circumstances. Drawing on Jakimow (2016), my interpretation in this paper is that the Indian students and their parents are locked in a complicitous relationship vis-à-vis each other so as to preserve the appearance that each is fulfilling their moral obligations to the other. This precarious mutual performances of moral duties – for parents to give their children a chance at social mobility by sponsoring their education and for children to study hard to realize that social mobility by becoming doctors – could only be preserved in this case through a complicitous silence about what actual went on in the programmes at CNU.

Finally, between the students and the educational intermediaries, complicity manifests in the otherwise surprising ways in which the problematic reality of the India-to-China MBBS programme never seemed to affect a cordial – sometimes even familial – relationship between the two parties. Their relationship seems far from a legalistic one between the customer and the service provider where the paying customer supposedly has the upper hand. It is argued, the students (and their parents) can be regarded as somewhat complicitous in their weak position vis-à-vis the intermediaries, thus allowing the latter to profit from their compromises.



The paper does not suggest that compromise and complicity are logics unique or exclusive to this case study. Arguably, elements of compromise and complicity are present in all forms of educational choices. In this account, however, they are so central as to warrant theorization on their own. Compromise and complicity may seem nothing more than matters of pragmatism. However, in this paper, I have chosen to interpret them as ingenious solutions devised by social actors who try to materialize their educational desires, social aspirations and organizational objectives amidst realities of class disadvantage and resource inadequacy.



Aiyar, P. (2006). Made in China Indian doctors.   Retrieved from

CAFSA. (China Association for International Education). (2016). Statistics for international students in China 2015.   Retrieved from

Jakimow, T. (2016). Clinging to hope through education: The consequences of hope for rural labourers in Telangana, India. ETHOS, 44(1), 11–31.

Mishra, A. (2012). China has become preferred destination for medical education.   Retrieved from

Steinmüller, H. (2010). Communities of complicity: Notes on state formation and local sociality in rural China. American Ethnologist, 37(3), 539–549.

Waters, J., Brooks, R., & Pimlott-Wilson, H. (2011). Youthful escapes? British students, overseas education and the pursuit of happiness. Social & Cultural Geography, 12(5), 455–469.



Peidong Yang (DPhil, Oxford) is a Lecturer in Humanities and Social Studies Education at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore. His research interests are located at the intersections between education, migration/mobility, and media. Past and present research projects include Singapore’s “foreign talent” policy in relation to Chinese students’ international mobility; immigration tensions and immigrant integration in Singapore; Indian medical students in China; and cultural analysis of (online) media memes in contemporary China. He is the author of International Mobility and Educational Desire: Chinese Foreign Talent Students in Singapore (Palgrave, 2016) and more than a dozen international peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. At NIE Singapore, he teaches courses on identity, globalization, and sociology of education to student teachers.

Educational Pathfinders? Unpacking Narrative Claims of North American and European Transnational Undergraduate Students in China

This is the excerpt for your very first post.


Kris Hyesoo Lee

University of Oxford

Abstract: To date, research on International Student Mobility (ISM) has predominantly been concerned with movements from Asia to English-speaking and/or European nations. Consequently, there has been a marked imbalance in the current literature on ISM, which primarily defines Asian countries as the dominant actor for outbound student mobility. In contrast, educational migration from English-speaking and/or Western countries to China, as a newly emerging study abroad destination, is a relatively recent phenomenon, and consequently has been eminently under researched. Therefore, this qualitative study brings critical examination to bear on how transnational students from North America and Europe experience studying for a bachelor’s degree delivered by an offshore campus in China.

The data is collected through questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, which complement with (digital) ethnographic observations of participants’ visual/textual narratives on their social media accounts. Sociological concepts and theories drawn from Michel Foucault and critical race theory/critical Whiteness studies are primarily used to theoretically frame a critical exploration of the narrative claims of international students on their educational experiences and choices.

The study sets forth commonalities as well as differences between transnational student flow to China and mainstream mobility. It highlights often personal and multi-layered ways in which transnational students make sense of their motivations for, and experiences of study abroad. Furthermore, place, space and materiality of international branch campus are analysed to explore the ways in which transnational students create meanings of their institutionally staged space of education, interact with others within and outside of it, and materially create power relations.





My doctoral research aims to offer, within the context of international branch campuses in China, a critical exploration of narrative claims of transnational students from Anglophone and European countries to study for English-taught undergraduate degrees in an unorthodox study abroad destination. In particular, it highlights often personal and multi-layered ways in which transnational students in China make sense of their motivations, decisions around their study abroad destination, and educational and non-educational experiences.

To date, research on International Student Mobility (ISM) has predominantly been concerned with movements from the Global South to major destination countries, particularly English-speaking and/or Western nations in the Global North. As such, ISM is often associated with the pursuit of English language and a Western education. In contrast, educational migration from English-speaking and/or Western countries to newly emerging study abroad destinations (e.g. China) is a relatively recent phenomenon, and consequently has never been thoroughly examined. In other words, there has been a marked imbalance in the current literature on ISM, which primarily defines Asian countries, China in particular, as a source of international students rather than a destination for such students. The purpose of this research, therefore, is to examine the motivations and experiences of these internationally mobile students from the Global North, who are important agents in reinforcing or reconfiguring current geographies of international higher education.

A cross-disciplinary review of current scholarship on ‘international student mobility’ and ‘internationalisation of higher education’ led me to an overarching question: how do international students from Anglophone and/or European countries define the field of international higher education and position themselves within it? This inquiry then involves three sub questions that guide my understanding of the overarching question:


  1. What are the motivating factors and considerations that inform the decision to study for a degree programme in China? In other words, what factors enable international students from European and Anglophone countries to ‘eschew’ education from their home country or other English speaking/European countries for education in an unconventional destination?
  2. What educational and non-educational experiences do international students from European and Anglophone countries (intentionally or unintentionally) obtain by studying in China?
  3. What are the perceived roles of international branch campuses as a social space in legitimating and/or enabling such motivations and experiences?

To answer the above questions, sociological concepts and theories drawn from Michel Foucault are primarily used to frame this inquiry theoretically, and to offer a critical exploration of the often complex narrative claims of international students on their educational experiences and choices. Particularly, I found the notion of subjectivity useful to look at the stories that are constructed for international students, and how power produces a particular subjectivity that is internalised and constitutes the ‘true story’ for them. This subject position is also observed from the ways that international students talk about their experience, because they talk about what they actively invest in the subject position during their stay in China. Places, spaces and materiality are also significant in the ways in which transnational students from the West shape the everyday life at an international branch campus in China. The physical context creates possibilities for meaning making that can be vital for these mobile young people’s experiences in an unorthodox study abroad destination. On the other hand, place, space, and materiality are embedded within ‘social norms’ that also open up possibilities for power relations, and exclusion.

The study draws on ethnographic data collected at an US university’s branch campus in China. The data is collected through questionnaires and semi-structured interviews with 32 North American and European transnational students. I complement semi-structured interview accounts with (digital) ethnographic observations of participants’ visual/textual narratives on their social media accounts.

Findings point out that although the group of international students in my research do not fit in to the stereotype of ‘international students’, they develop subjectivities based on sameness and difference. While many students reported that the decisions to come to China were impulsive , my analysis shows that there is a dominant image of the cosmopolitan international student, which my participants tried to ‘become’. In addition, Whiteness was a major theme residing under the surface of the North American and European international students’ experiences in China. Although participants dominantly talked about racial privilege in China, it is similarly related to a broader privilege of mobility associated with Western nationality, English proficiency, and disposable income. Such privilege is not necessarily based on white complexion. Other international students, although in different degree, ‘acquire’ whiteness through their affluence, association with western culture, and institutional membership within an elite US school. In addition, analysis of the physical environment of participants’ transnational education, such as the international branch campus and urban space in China, describes how transnational students create meaning and conduct themselves within and outside of institutionally staged spaces, and how they materially create power relations and interplay with other actors involved.

By positioning the participants’ narrative accounts within the powerful discourse of neo-liberal globalisation and the internationalisation of higher education, this study demonstrates how these globally mobile students reinforce and/or undermine some of the taken-for-granted assumptions and dominant representation of international students in existing literature. The study concludes with a discussion of implications concerning commonalities and differences between Southward and Northward international student mobility, as well as a call for further research into the role of transnational student flow to newly emerging study abroad destinations.


Kris Hyesoo Lee is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, where she conducts a sociological study of the transnational mobility through education, particularly contemporary migration from the West to China. She uses a range of disciplinary lenses including human geography, sociology, and education to deepen an understanding on the meaning of globalisation, international and transnational mobility, and identity and belonging. Prior to undertaking her doctoral studies, she served various roles in the higher education sector. She holds a master’s degree in Education from the University of Cambridge, where she was a member of Wolfson college.