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

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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