Han, X. (2023). Governing through ambiguity in the normalizing society: The lesson from Chinese transnational higher education regulation. Journal of Education Policy, Online First. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2023.2210094
The traditional technocratic model in policy analysis features in three dimensions: first, it takes language as the transparent vehicle to facilitate communications between writers and various readers; second, it follows the problem-solving route, considering policy documents as the political responses empirically based upon factual data to existing social problems; third, it considers the participants as disinterested individuals immunizing from the policy impact. Following this empiricist-idealist view of language, scholars are expected to provide neutral data/information for policy-makers to develop/revise solutions to the pre-identified problems, seek authorial intentions hidden behind the policy texts, and proffer interpretations which could generate commensurable meaning among readers. In other words, it equalizes language to a static set of perfect signifiers about the externally constituted world of things, and by so doing sidesteps the contingencies, intricacies, and indeterminacies of policies.
The progress in socio-linguistics directs scholars’ attention to the discourse property of language, and also, policy documents. Discourse, especially for Foucault-inspired critical policy analysts, does more than designate things: it delimits what can be said and thought; it constitutes, produces, and creates, rather than enumerating and describing subjects, objects, and places; it sets the norms to fabricate individuals into the social order, elicits their self-governance as an act of free will, and thus yields human beings into made subjects.
While existing critical studies on making politics visible are cornucopian in demonstrating how power penetrates into every aspect of social life, to institute disciplinary technologies and thus conduct individuals’ conduct, Foucault’s own slide from the terminal stage of discourse—the linguistic elements, may whittle the theory’s potency in explaining the reality, especially when referring to policy research in the broader social science fields including public administration, politics and international relations: if policy discourse functions to convey norms in shaping desirable subjects, its expression should be as precise as possible to be followed. Why could policymakers endure and even encourage equivocalness in policy texts instead of trying to reduce it?
Empirically based upon China’s regulation over transnational higher education (TNHE), this article draws interdisciplinary prism to highlight the persistent existence of ambiguity in policy documents and its impact on the enacting process. For instance, in authoritarian China, linguistic ambiguity could demonstrate its positive effects: within the context of severe discursive conflict, the equivocal expressions not only mask the incompatible norms setting but also leave negotiation room for creative policy enactment. Specifically, Chinese national policies about TNHE embodies the “curious hybrid of command and market”: on one hand, the introduction of neoliberalism permits the penetration of market logic into the previously state-controlled domain of education when China decides to modernize itself by internationalizing its higher education (HE) system. As a vital and integral part of HE internationalization, TNHE thus gains permission (and encouragement) to develop within Chinese territory; on the other hand, although TNHE itself instantiates the imposition of neoliberal discourse, the authoritarian concern of China to take “the total administration of life”, and its ideological reliance on socialism for moral legitimacy prevent its full embrace of market logic. To ensure the state’s interference into every social aspect, the local officials are expected to simultaneously facilitate and prevent the penetration of market forces into the TNHE.
It is within this context that clarification in policy documents is considered “managerially sound” but “politically irrational”. The deliberate adoption of ambiguous expressions could not only help to convince readers but also leave negotiating room for policy practitioners to achieve contradictory ends. This is the “positive effect of ambiguity” highlighted by Matland (1995, 158). For example, to mask the market -based inequality in China’s socialist society, the national policies adopt rather ambiguous expressions in regulating the tuition fee setting, which is required to consider the affordability of the students” and to achieve the balance between the charges in public and private universities. So while the tuition fee is calculated and decided by the universities, it must gain approval from local governments before coming into effect.
However, the criteria is riddled with ambiguity, clarifying neither the authoritarian/socialist nor neoliberal norm: the difficulty (or more precisely, impossibility) of quantifying the “affordability” of potential students; the fuzzy measurement of “balancing between public and private universities”—especially when considering what the Deputy Director from Y Provincial Government frankly states: “TNHE in China is legally regulated by the Non-state (private) Education Promotion Law, so it is unclear how to balance the charge…”; and the obscuring gauge in calculating the cultivating cost of students, “there is no simple criteria in deciding the faculty salaries in TNHE (compared with Chinese public universities)…most of the time they have to make a better offer (based on the qualification and the faculty’s former pay level) for introducing talents” (2017). These ambiguous statements, on the other hand, permit flexibility for local officials when enacting national policies. As he continues to say candidly: “The tuition fee set by the TNHE (especially Sino-foreign cooperation universities) is relatively autonomous, and we always permit their application for the charge”. Such support and permission are based on the local officials’ understanding of market logic, as he explains: “They are running the TNHE in the market… students have a lot of choices—studying physically abroad, applying to other programs/colleges/universities, or enrolling in other Chinese universities…the setting of charge has already been monitored and modified by the market” (2019).
When the imposition of law in population regulation has been gradually replaced by its calculated practice of directing categories of social agents, the individuals are seemingly permitted to act “freely and proactively”. However, the Chinese local officials’ creativity and innovation in flexibly enacting national policies have never been “in a position of exteriority to power”, but ending up enforcing and intensifying the existing power relations—the authoritarian control in China as they boost the development of TNHE and thus prove the “rightness” of China’s political control. This strategic and invisible operation of power deserves scholarly attention for how it objectifies and subjectifies human beings.
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. She will take the position of assistant professor at the Department of International Education, Education University of Hong Kong soon. 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. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Managing editor: Xin Fan