Expanding flexible citizenship: Chinese international school students and global mobilities for higher education

Ma, Y. and Wright, E. (2022), “Expanding flexible citizenship: Chinese international school students and global mobilities for higher education“, Social Transformations in Chinese Societies, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/STICS-05-2022-0010

There is a rich literature on the mobilities of international students for higher education (e.g., Brooks and Waters, 2022). Previous research, however, has focused almost exclusively on students already abroad. It has tended to overlook a significant development in education systems worldwide: the expansion of international schools that serve as a pipeline to overseas higher education for a local base of middle-class families (Bunnell, 2022; Wright et al., 2022). In China, the number of international schools boomed from 22 in 2000 to 1,103 in 2022, with an enrolment of around 406,037 students (ISC Research, 2022). Although international schooling has been historically associated with mobile expatriates, 87 percent of international schools in China cater exclusively or primarily to Chinese citizens (NewSchool Insight, 2019). In this article, we report on interviews with final-year high-school students (n=60) and parents (n=16) from eight international schools in Shenzhen, covering their motivations for overseas higher education, experience with international schooling, self-perceived identities, and imagined futures.

In so doing, we interrogate and expanded on the flexible citizenship framework by illuminating the emergent identities and imagined future mobilities of students from China’s international schools. Flexible citizenship, defined as ‘cultural logics of capitalist accumulation, travel, and displacement that induce subjects to respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political-economic conditions’ under globalisation (Ong, 1999, p. 6), has been widely applied to understand the identities of Chinese international students (e.g., Fong, 2011, Wu and Tarc, 2021; 2022). From this perspective, Chinese students and their families are mainly portrayed as instrumentalist, investing in Western education to obtain cultural symbols of academic credentials that are convertible to enhanced prospects for imagined futures overseas.

By contrast, we found that the participants chose to pursue not only the symbolic capital of degrees but also a high-quality, open, diverse, critical, and character-building education, i.e., embodied cultural capital cultivation for a globalised world. By aspiring for elite universities in Anglophone societies, they demonstrated a complex understanding of elite degrees as positional goods in a global higher education landscape hegemonised by the West (Marginson, 2008) as well as the core of international education as building intercultural competencies and cosmopolitan dispositions (e.g., Weenink, 2008). Unlike the Chinese international students in previous literature who have been represented as ill-prepared for Western education (e.g., Fong, 2011), international schooling experience appears to have helped our participants feel confidently ready for overseas studies through English proficiency, international curricula, and extracurricular exposures.

International schooling appears to have instilled authentically globally-oriented values in the students. The students in our study regarded themselves as knowledgeable and critical about global issues, respectful of cultural diversity, and responsible for global betterment, thus self-perceived ‘global citizens’. Similar global-oriented logics were missing in the flexible citizenship framework, with its narrow focus on instrumental considerations (Fong, 2011; Ong, 1999). Our participants maintained a strong Chinese identity, which they considered compatible with being ‘global citizens’. On the surface, their Chinese roots may resemble the emotional, cultural, and social attachments’ flexible citizens’ had toward home (Ong, 1999). However, our participants’ confidence in China as a rising global power and willingness to build careers in China set them apart from flexible citizens, whose primary goal was to escape a ‘backward’ China and pursue livelihoods in the developed world. We argue that, even though instrumental thinking and flexibility were at play in our participants’ choice of overseas higher education and imagined futures, the students were becoming global citizens with Chinese roots.

Expanding on our findings, we discusss the changing desire among Chinese families for overseas higher education across three generations: before the Reforms and Opening-up in 1978, from the 1980s to the early 21st century, and in the first two decades of the 21st century. First, before the Reforms and Opening-up in 1978, socialist and patriotic discourses dominated China. People typically formed strong political, social, and emotional bonds to the socialist rule and felt hostile toward the ‘capitalist West’. Under a strict state-planning economy, the urban population were distributed in ‘work units’ that offered accommodation, medical care, children’s education, and other essential life assurances (Bian, 1994). For a vast majority of the population, education played a relatively insignificant role in determining life chances. In this context, overseas education was unwelcome and unnecessary.

Second, from the 1980s to the early 21st century, economic reforms disrupted socialist public institutions such as housing, healthcare, and education and placed Chinese families under increasing social insecurities and self-accountability. An individualised, success-driving ethic began to dominate (Yan, 2013). Education gradually became a vital means to climb the social ladder. Free compulsory education was universalised in the 1980s, and the 1990s witnessed expansions of high school and postsecondary education. The One-Child policy further motivated urban parents to invest in the education of their ‘only hope’. Moreover, as cultural inputs from the outside world (e.g., TV shows, music, literature, food) and developing-versus-developed-world discourses were popularised, many found it hard to shake off the idea of a ‘backward’ China or uncertainty about its future (Fong, 2011, pp. 70-71). A growing desire for ‘the developed world’ motivated families from diverse backgrounds to desire overseas education despite the high costs, especially when they saw little chance to succeed in the national education system. This was the period when both Ong (1999) and Fong (2011) conducted their research that generated and popularised the flexible citizenship framework.

Third, in the first two decades of the 21st century, when our student participants were born and raised, individualisation and competition intensified in Chinese cities. With individual responsibility for educational success and future prosperity, aspirations and anxieties merged to characterise urban Chinese families (Kipnis, 2011). The mass expansion of higher education in China began to be criticised for exacerbating inequalities in access to elite universities, graduate unemployment, and credential inflation (e.g., Mok, 2016). As an alternative, more affluent families demanded overseas education, which contributed to responsive policy relaxations, including international schools’ expansion to cater to local students.

Additionally, the young generation in China has grown up as learners of the English language, active users of the Internet, and consumers of global brands and cultural products. Their global awareness and cultural readiness for overseas studies, therefore, tends to be more developed than previous generations. On the global stage, China increasingly presented itself as a rising power, not only in economic terms, but also through ‘soft power’ initiatives such as ‘One-Belt-and-One-Road’, foreign aid, peace-making missions, contributions to Sustainability Goals, and so on (e.g., Jiang, 2021). Meanwhile, the image of developed countries suffered, for example, through the financial crisis in 2008, political scandals, campus shootings, and, most recently, the perceived mishandling of Covid-19. The prestige of overseas education, especially the elite Western universities, still firmly stands. Nonetheless, overall, we argue that the events of the past twenty years contributed to the international school students’ emergent identities that deviate from traditional accounts of flexible citizenship by combining authentically globally-oriented values with self-confidence regarding their China and their Chinese roots.


Bian, Y. (1994), Work and Inequality in Urban China, State University of New York Press, Albany.

Brooks, R., & Waters, J. (2022). Partial, hierarchical and stratified space? Understanding ‘the international’ in studies of international student mobility. Oxford Review of Education, 1-18.

Bunnell, T. (2022). “The crypto-growth of “International Schooling”: Emergent issues and implications”. Educational Review, Vol 74 No 1, pp. 39-56.

Fong, V. (2011), Paradise Redefined: Transnational Chinese Students and the Quest for Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

ISC Research (2022), Data on international schools, available at: https://iscresearch.com/data/

Jiang, X. (2021), “Moving the agenda forward”, China Daily, 16 July, available at: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202107/16/WS60f0cc51a310efa1bd6623be.html

Kipnis, A. B. (2011), Governing Educational Desire, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Mok, K. H. (2016), “Massification of higher education, graduate employment and social mobility in the Greater China region”, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 37 No. 1, pp.51-71.

NewSchool Insight (2019), 2019 Annual Report of International Schools in China: Policy and Market Research (in Chinese), NewSchool Insight, Beijing.

Ong, A. (1999), Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality, Duke University Press, Durham.

Weenink, D. (2008), “Cosmopolitanism as a form of capital: parents preparing their children for a globalising world”, Sociology, Vol. 42 No. 6, pp.1089–1106.

Wu, X. and Tarc, P. (2021), “Chinese international students in a Canadian private secondary school: becoming flexible citizens?”, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, Vol 51 No 6, pp. 901-919.

Wright, E., Ma, Y., & Auld, E. (2022). Experiments in being global: The cosmopolitan nationalism of international schooling in China. Globalisation, Societies and Education, Vol 20 No 2, pp. 236-249.

Authors’ bio:

Ewan Wright, Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK)

Ewan Wright is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at the Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK). He is also a Research Fellow at the Joseph Lau Luen Hung Charitable Trust Asia Pacific Centre for Leadership and Change. At EdUHK, he is the Programme Leader of the Executive Master of Arts in International Educational Leadership and Change. He is currently conducting a University Grants Committee of Hong Kong-funded project on the proliferation of international schooling in China’s Greater Bay Area. His work has been published in well-regarded journals such as British Educational Research JournalBritish Journal of Sociology of EducationDiscourseGlobalisation, Societies and Education, and Higher Education.

Ying Ma, Fudan University

Ying Ma is an Associate Research Professor at the Institute of Higher Education, Fudan University. She received her PhD from the University of Hong Kong. Her main research interests include student experience of higher education, graduate employment, and international education (schooling). She has published in well-regarded English- and Chinese-language academic journals such as Globalisation, Societies and Education and Tsinghua Journal of Education.

Managing editor: Tong Meng

A Sociomaterial Investigation into Chinese International Students’ Navigation of a Doctoral Trajectory During Covid-19

Research highlighted

Xu, X. (2022). A Sociomaterial Investigation into Chinese International Students’ Navigation of a Doctoral Trajectory During COVID-19Journal of Studies in International Education. doi:10.1177/10283153221126247

Despite the growing scholarship on the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education, there is a dearth of specific focus on how international doctoral students perceive their navigation of a disrupted study journey from a sociomaterial perspective. It is not yet clear what and how the performative roles played by matter and human forces shape this process of navigation from their emic views. Bearing these gaps in mind, this study recruited a group of Chinese international doctoral students (CIDS) to share their emic perceptions. Specifically, it employed a sociomaterial approach to enabling exploration, with the aim of tackling the relevant lacuna and being a timely contribution to international HE. 

This study adopts a sociomaterial approach to its analysis. In the domain of educational research, an increasing number of scholars corroborate a sociomaterial approach that challenges the subordination of materials to the human subject and foregrounds messy textures woven through hybrid assemblages of objects, discourses, bodies, technologies, etc. Despite discrepancies and convergences, restoring a focus on the more-than-human dynamics, this approach generally challenges the separation logic but supports an interpenetrated entanglement between the human and non-human as a constitutive force of building everyday action and knowledge (Edwards & Fenwick, 2014). Moving away from a view of either downplaying materiality or separating it from the human, this approach adds new insights from a relational and performative perspective.

To facilitate a deep investigation, this study employed a qualitative methodology. Circulated with a purposive snowballing strategy, the recruitment targeted CIDS who were either overseas or in China when an interview took place. The researchers stopped recruiting more participants when the recruitment secured 20 participants, reaching a point of qualitative saturation in relation to the key research questions (Hu et al., 2022). Despite this being a relatively small sample size that ensures neither a good representativeness nor generalizability of the CIDS cohort, it features diversity at several levels, somewhat mitigating limitations intrinsic to qualitative research.  All transcripts were transported into NVivo 12 for a thematic analysis informed by the data and the theoretical underpinnings adopted by the study.

This study brought sociomateriality of international doctoral education to the fore amidst the unprecedented health crisis. Firstly, it problematizes human-centeredness in conceptualizing learning practices that were peculiarly complicated by the precarious socio-historical context. Backdropped the pandemic, some activities, settings and relationships integral to doctoral training were disabled, with learning space morphed, material provision disrupted and extra scrutiny imposed. These destructive forces undeniably contoured the educational experience, serving to exclude, invite, and regulate particular forms of participation (Fenwick, 2014). Secondly, resonating with other studies that disclose how the ripple effects of the pandemic penetrated multiple facets of a study trajectory (Aristovnik, et al., 2020; Xu & Tran, 2021), instigating disruption of learning ecology, intensified racialization and bodily scrutiny, this study offers further insights by revealing how socio-material bricolages were mobilized to address these plights and even transform them into empowering energies. This process is facilitated by interdependencies of humans and material forms. Whereas human actors use and thus transform material objects, things as mediators of practices are also capable of transforming human actions (Brooks & Waters, 2018).  Conversely, material environment also moderates learning behaviors. As a consequence of the myriad interrelationships, new meanings were produced among these hybrid assemblages of materials, ideas, and bodies (Guerrettaz et al., 2021).

In light of the findings, this study offers some insights on internationalization of doctoral education and practical implications for stakeholders to better support international doctoral students in the current dire situation. Firstly, it lends empirical weight to a nuanced conceptualization of university internationalization against new circumstances. For many students stranded in China, they need readjustment relying at least temporarily on technology-enabled learning across geographic boundaries “abroad” while simultaneously remaining at “home”, which falls into the category of internationalization at a distance (Ramanau, 2016; Mittelmeier et al., 2021) that goes beyond the binary of internationalization at home and internationalization abroad. Echoing previous scholarship that endorses an integration of infrastructural resources in situ and opportunities provided through distance learning via this category (Breines et al., 2019; Mittelmeier et al., 2019), this study however contributes distinct subtleties that lay bare how internationalization at a distance is compromised when it is practiced not as a fully-developed educational mechanism but as an expedient response to the sudden and massive rupture following the pandemic. The managerial, technological, operational and mental unpreparedness of temporary readjustment at the institutional and personal levels diminishes doctoral students’ educational quality. This warrants practical implications for facilitating a sustainable doctoral trajectory, during and beyond the current health crisis. At the macro level, innovation of technologies and formalization of the virtual delivery, cooperation and research should be further strengthened (Huang et al., 2022) as internationalization strategies in the interest of local and global common goods (Marginson, 2020). At the micro level, international doctoral students should sharpen their psychological and behavioral responsiveness to future challenges, mobilizing and appropriating possible resources in order not only to survive but also thrive in unpleasant circumstances. As revealed in the study, one possibility is to tap the sociomaterial potential, facilitating human and non-human forces to form assemblages that act together through ongoing coordinating work (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010) to sustain stability of an educational journey. Having said that, we must admit that a fine-grained articulation of these efforts is neither the focus of the current study, nor can be succinctly elaborated in a piece of this length. Focusing on doctoral students solely, this study has not unpacked comparative (dis)similarities with other international student cohorts such as the course-based master students. We as researchers suggest future research attend to this limitation based on a larger pool of student participants with heterogeneous background characteristics. Also, future endeavors are encouraged to shed more light on sociomateriality of international education, which we believe can contribute to the sustainability of internationalization of doctoral education in a post-pandemic world.

Dr Xu’s other Research Highlights entries:

Authors’ Bio

Dr Xing Xu, Sichuan International Studies University

Dr Xing Xu (许幸) is a lecturer at Sichuan International Studies University, China. Her research interests include internationalization of higher education, doctoral students’ evaluation of educational experience, academic mobility, identity construction of doctoral students, and qualitative inquiry. She can be contacted via email: xing.xu@uon.edu.au.

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)

Foreign Academics in China

Research highlighted

Cai, Y., Braun Střelcová, A., Marini, G., Huang, F., & Xu, X. (2022). Foreign Academics in China. International Higher Education, (111), 29-30. Retrieved from https://ejournals.bc.edu/index.php/ihe/article/view/15343

Note: the text was originally published on International Higher Education (IHE).


This article examines the experience of international academics to mainland China. The emerging trend of foreign academics moving into long-term, full-time positions in Chinese universities is an underreported phenomenon in research. This short article discusses the following questions: Who are the foreign academics in China? What motivated them to work there? What are their expected roles in local academia? Are they satisfied with their jobs? Are they going to stay in China?

Keywords: Academic migration, international academics, internationalization of higher education, China

Funding acknowledgement: Research projects leading to this article were funded respectively by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (project “An International and Comparative Study in Roles and Contributions of International Faculty and Researchers”, 2019-2023, project code 19H01640); Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR, project code ANR-14-ORAR-0004); and Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE).

Being a major global science and technology player, mainland China has become also a destination for international academics. In this regard, the Chinese government’s policy has shifted from primarily encouraging overseas Chinese to return to also attracting foreign-born academics to China. Over the recent years, the composition of the latter group has evolved. The “old” cohort of this group consisted mainly of university (language) teachers, short-term academic visitors, part-time post holders and honorary affiliates, trailing spouses, or Chinese returnees. They have been joined by a “new” cohort, foreign nationals moving to China for full-time, long-term academic positions. The authors of this article have recently conducted comprehensive investigations on this emerging phenomenon, and report on the key findings below.

Who Are the Foreign Academics in China?

The term—foreign or international academics in China—has been frequently used without a univocal definition. In China, policy discourses on foreign academics have evolved from sulian zhuanjia (Soviet experts) in the 1950s, waiguo wenjiao zhuanjia (foreign cultural and educational experts) and waiji jiaoshi (foreign-nationality teachers) in the 1990s, and waiji rencai (foreign talents), the term used in recent talent programs at the national and local levels. The current policies concentrate on attracting researchers with foreign nationality to work in China. In many universities, further priority is given to those of non-Chinese ethnicity, primarily white foreigners from the global West. Although most accurate, up-to-date data is missing, the 2019 Ministry of Education’s data indicates that there are more than 18,000 foreign academics in China. However, recent studies, including the authors’ works, show that foreign academics in China do not constitute a homogenous group. Instead, they can be differentiated by various attributes, such as scientific disciplines, career stage, gender, nationality, ethnicity, country of previous work experience as well as education, and more.

Moreover, recent studies have revealed some interesting findings. First, the most sought-after foreign academics in Chinese universities are established researchers in engineering and natural sciences, coming from the global West. Second, there is a prevalence of academics who are male, senior, and have citizenship, work experience, and degrees from Western countries. Finally, an emerging group of foreign-born academics, who stayed in China after receiving their doctoral degrees there, has appeared. Naturally, the group’s heterogeneity is reflected in the diversity of their experiences.

What Motivated Foreign Academics to Work in China?

Foreign academics come to China for a combination of professional, cultural, social, and personal reasons. The most common primary motivation is career development, since the change of location can bring better opportunities than staying in the previous country of residence. The prospects also concern salaries, allowances, research funding, subsidized housing, dual career offers for spouses and overall recognition of their track records. The second motivation is the cultural and social connection, often entangled with the professional aspect. Especially academics from social sciences and humanities are attracted by the opportunity to work in a unique cultural environment. To some of them, having strong networks in China is essential to their research. The third motivation is related to the academics’ personal reasons, such as having a Chinese spouse.

What Are their Expected Roles in Chinese Academia?

Chinese institutions’ expectations for foreign academics are closely connected to the pursuit of building world-class universities. When hiring foreign academics, the universities and research institutes seek enhancing their international reputation, increasing research productivity, promoting international collaboration, supporting faculty development, and attracting international students. Such a situation is in significant contrast with the 1990s when international staff was hired mainly for teaching. According to the foreign academics themselves, they are primarily recruited to boost the institution’s research performance and international reputation. Nonetheless, they also feel that they are confined to ‘bubbles’, being less integrated in their workplaces than their Chinese colleagues. Many believe they could play more important roles in building links between their affiliated institutions and global academic networks.

Are They Satisfied with Their Jobs?

Despite variations, foreign academics are overall satisfied with their working conditions. In most cases, those in engineering and natural sciences are happier with their jobs than those from social sciences and humanities who are more likely to feel frustrated, especially if they are junior researchers. Nonetheless, foreign academics see challenges in both professional and non-professional aspects of life, especially after a few years. First, they perceive being viewed as a possible source of conflict by domestic academics and administrators. Second, foreign academics often feel isolated from the rest of the institution, i.e. being seen as guests. Third, most of them believe language barriers exist e.g., in applying for research funding. Fourth, shrinking academic freedom is concerning, particularly to some social sciences researchers. Fifth, most find it hard to adapt to the local research administration system. Finally, non-professional challenges mainly include cultural integration (e.g., conflicting value systems), legal procedures (e.g., lengthy visa and residence permit applications), and living conditions (e.g., expensive healthcare, children’s schooling).

Will Foreign Academics Stay in China?   

Regarding long-term retaining, significant differences exist among academics with different attributes. A recent study on Europeans in Chinese public universities shows that these academics’ job satisfaction tends to decrease along with time as they gradually identify further challenges related to their employing institution as well as the larger society. On the other hand, since many such academics accept offers in China with a higher academic rank at a relatively younger age, it is logical they consider relocating elsewhere again. Still, their work experience in China become an essential stepping stone in increasing their competitiveness in the global academic labor market.

Concluding Remarks

Now the world is experiencing extraordinary crises caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the US-China decoupling, as well as the Russia-Ukraine war. The shifting geopolitical dynamics is likely to dramatically influence also the landscape of international mobility of academics. Due to the pandemic travel restrictions in China, the country’s foreign population has already shrunk. For instance, the number of European academics in China has been reduced by one third. In view of that, the evolving flows of international migration in China, including the movements of foreign academics, should be closely monitored and continuously traced.

Relevant publications

Braun Střelcová, A., Y. Cai, and W. Shen. 2022. “The Experience of European Researchers in China: A Comparative Capital Advantage Perspective.” The Journal of Knowledge Economyhttps://doi.org/10.1007/s13132-022-00982-3

Huang, F. 2022. “International Faculty in China: Their Motivations and Work Roles.” In Changing Higher Education in East Asia, edited by S. Marginson, and X. Xu, 203–223. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Huang, F., and Y. Kim. 2022. “International Faculty Members in China, Japan and South Korea: Their Characteristics and the Challenges Facing Them.” In Research Handbook on Managing Academics, edited by C. S. Sarrico, M. J. Rosa, and T. Carvalho, 338–355. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.

Marini, G., and X. Xu. 2021. “The Golden Guests”? International Faculty in Mainland Chinese Universities. SRHE Research Report. https://srhe.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/SRHE-Research-Report_Marini_Xu_Oct-2021_Final.pdf

Xu, X., Braun Střelcová, A., Marini, G., Huang, F., & Cai, Y. (2022). International academics in mainland China: what do we know and what do we need to know?. European Journal of Higher Education, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/21568235.2022.2074865

Author bio:

Dr Yuzhuo Cai, Tampere University

Dr Yuzhuo Cai is Senior Lecturer and Adjunct Professor at the Higher Education Group, Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University, Finland. He is the Director of Sino-Finnish Education Research Centre, JoLii, and Deputy Director of Research Centre on Transnationalism and Transformation at Tampere University. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Triple Helix: A Journal of University-Industry-Government Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He has over 100 academic publications in the fields of higher education research and innovation studies. He can be contacted at yuzhuo.cai@tuni.fi.

Andrea Braun Střelcová, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

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. She can be contacted at astrelcova@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de.

Dr Giulio Marini is Assistant Professor at the Social Research Institute, Faculty of Education and Society, University College London where he has worked for the last 6 years. Previously he has been post-doctoral researcher at Scuola Normale Superiore Pisa (Italy), Cipes University of Porto (Portugal), and the CNR Italy. He is member of the editorial board of European Journal of Higher Education, a journal he has been for more than three years associate editor. His research is mostly in the staff side of higher education. He can be contacted at g.marini@ucl.ac.uk.

Dr Futao Huang, Hiroshima University

Dr Futao Huang is Professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan. Before he came to Japan in 1999, he taught and conducted research in several Chinese universities. His main research interests include internationalization of higher education, the academic profession, and higher education in East Asia. He has published widely in Chinese, English and Japanese languages. He can be contacted atfutao@hiroshima-u.ac.jp.

Dr. Xin Xu, University of Oxford

Dr Xin Xu (许心) is a Research Fellow at the Department of Education, University of Oxford. Xin’s research concentrates on the globalisation and internationalisation of higher education and research. Recent books include Changing Higher Education in East Asia (co-edited with Simon Marginson; Bloomsbury). Profile page: http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/people/xin-xu/ She can be contacted at xin.xu@education.ox.ac.uk.

Managing editor: Tong Meng

Class Consciousness Construction of Rural Migrant Children in China: Seeking the Alternative Way Out in Meritocratic Schooling

Jiaxin Chen (2022) Class Consciousness Construction of Rural Migrant Children in China. Taylor & Francis.

As China’s urban economy continued to boom after entering the twenty-first century, its rural migrant population experienced unprecedented expansion, making it a significant portion of the working-class people in China. Despite their massive population, rural migrant workers enjoy little labour protection and endure long working hours, subsistence-level wages, and harsh working conditions. However, they rarely take collective action against the injustices they experience. With lacking of the central element for class formation, as the emerging ‘new’ members of the Chinese working class, rural migrant workers are still in the state of ‘class-in-itself’. This phenomenon calls for attention to the formation of migrant workers’ class consciousness.

In this monograph, I address this issue by focusing on its constructive process in childhood. To be specific, I mainly focus on the construction of class consciousness among rural migrant children, who are likely to reproduce their parents’ migrant working jobs in the future. I intend to answer two main research questions: How rural migrant children perceive their surrounding social realities and how their social perceptions could be constructed and reshaped throughout their urban schooling process. I conducted qualitative investigations in two primary schools – one private migrant school and one public school in Beijing between June 2014 and April 2015. Data were drawn from document reviews, questionnaires, interviews, and school observations conducted in the two case schools.

This book borrows Paulo Freire’s works on two states of consciousness – false and critical – of the oppressed to conceptualise an analytic framework. Findings reveal that, even at their young age, rural migrant children had already developed an awareness of manual workers’ poor working conditions and inferior situation relative to their employers. They distinguished between manual and mental labour, firmly subscribing to the latter’s superiority. They also believed in meritocracy, seeing workers’ educational failures as the primary cause of their falling into and being limited to physical labour and their adversities. Because of their perceptions of a hierarchical social structure, rural migrant children favoured mental-labour-oriented occupations and expected to become employers to differentiate themselves from their parents, who mainly worked as manual labourers. However, although rural migrant children considered the employment regime as the critical mechanism of exploitation, they tended to blame incidents of exploitation on the poor moral quality of individual employers and workers’ bad luck.

Such attribution features make it unlikely that these children would take collective action to improve their future employment relations. Indeed, many of them rejected the collective action migrant workers could have performed in the labour market. Therefore, if these migrant children eventually become the next generation of China’s new workers, they may adopt similar strategies as their parents and the current migrant working class, such as enduring hardships and relying upon the employers’ morality and conscience (not workers themselves) to initiate action for improvement.

This book proves that the formation of class consciousness begins early in one’s childhood. However, rural migrant children’s interpretations of perceived class-based inequalities and their intended actions to achieve future improvements showed a state of false consciousness overshadowed by individualism, meritocracy, and the duality of images. More importantly, such dominant ideologies of individualism and meritocracy and the depreciation of migrant workers were strongly embraced by migrant families and school environments, the two most significant institutions shaping migrant children’s class consciousness construction.

The family context plays an important role in revealing the problematic situation of the migrant working class in mainstream society to rural migrant children, allowing them to develop their awareness. However, it must be admitted that migrant parents’ passive acceptance of their bosses’ labour abuses could also send their children the message that workers are weak and have no choice but to swallow the abuse and endure.

Schools, therefore, are expected to play a pivotal role in cultivating children’s critical consciousness, from offering oppressed children a chance to identify that they are situated in social, political, and economic contradictions to problematising the contradictions of (and eventually initiating collective actions against) social oppression. Nevertheless, as discussed in this book, such a possibility is also in danger and challenged by the current schooling system. As investigated, all teachers at the two case schools were committed to the ideology that ‘education changes destiny.’ Like migrant parents, teachers also saw studying hard as the only conceivable way for migrant children to climb the social ladder, even though only a token number would ever enter university and become white-collar professionals, and most would be tracked into vocational education or directly into the labour market. Despite the good intentions underlying teachers’ work to motivate migrant children to study, teachers’ negative narrations of migrant parents embedded within the schools’ educational meritocracy further reinforced rural migrant children’s recognition of manual workers’ inferiority in the labour market.

A small group of teachers in the private migrant school actively attempted to unravel the issues of social inequality among their migrant students in the school context. Nevertheless, labour issues were still rarely addressed in the school context or, again, were viewed from the perspective of the migrant–local/rural-urban dichotomy. Additionally, teachers’ limited teaching competency in the migrant school significantly constrained the quality of their initial attempts to critically analyse class-based inequalities with migrant children.

In this vein, neither the migrant children nor the adults and institutions surrounding them had enough exposure to conceptual resources to form critical views of social inequalities from the class dimension. The above findings suggest that the current lack of collective resistance among China’s ‘new workers’ may result from workers’ strong belief in meritocracy and internalisation of the employer position they developed in their youth while in school.

Overall, this book bridges the research gap by applying a critical class perspective to the analysis of migrant children’s perception of their and their working-class parents’ experiences of marginalisation and exclusion in urban society and the influence of urban schooling thereon. These findings also provide empirical evidence to verify Freire’s explanation of the development of oppressed people’s social consciousness from a Chinese perspective.

Author Bio

Dr Jiaxin Chen, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Dr Jiaxin Chen is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Applied Social Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong. Her research interests include rural-urban inequalities and labour migration in China, academic mobility, parenting, and rural community development. She is particularly interested in investigating social issues via the sociological lens and qualitative methods. She is currently working on two research projects, academic returnees’ cultural adaptation in Chinese higher education system (funded by Early Career Scheme from Hong Kong Research Grants Council) and rural migrant parents’ involvement in children’s education in China.

Managing editor: Tong Meng


周思媛, 宋婧 (2022). 从女毕业生到女保险代理人: 教育流动引导的内—港跨境就业迁移. 妇女研究论丛, 171(3), pp. 58-73.

English version





Siyuan Zhou (周思媛),

Ms. ZHOU Siyuan (周思媛) is a Ph.D. candidate in Gender Studies Programme and the Department of Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include gender and work, migration, and female entrepreneurship. Her doctoral project is about “doing gender” and “doing business” between Hong Kong and mainland China among female IANG insurance agents (Email: siyuanzhou@link.cuhk.edu.hk).

Dr. Jing Song (宋婧),

Dr. Jing Song (宋婧) is an Associate Professor in Gender Studies Programme at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and an Associate Researcher (by courtesy) at Shenzhen Research Institute, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include family, gender, work, urbanization, migration and China’s market transition. She has published in China Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary China, Urban Studies, Journal of Rural Studies, Work Employment and Society, Population Space and Place, China Review, Journal of Sociology, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Housing Studies, Asian Anthropology, and so on. Her book Gender and Employment in Rural China was published in 2017 by Routledge (Email: jingsong@cuhk.edu.hk).