The Foreign Bully, the Guest, and the Low-income Knowledge Worker: Performing Multiple Versions of Whiteness in China

Research highlighted:

Lan, S. (2021). The foreign bully, the guest, and the low-income knowledge worker: Performing multiple versions of whiteness in China. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Dr Shanshan Lan, University of Amsterdam

With the rise of China as the world’s second largest economy, more and more white Westerners are moving to China to pursue better job or business opportunities. In addition to the so-called transnational elites, there is an increasing number of middle-stratum white migrants who work as English teachers, self-initiated entrepreneurs, locally hired staff in transnational companies, lecturers in Chinese universities, and artists or creative workers in China’s media and cultural sectors. Unlike the transnational elites who usually have limited social interactions with local Chinese (Yeo and Willis 2005), this new group often depends on professional and social networks with local Chinese to consolidate their business or career opportunities. Scholars have noted the decline of social privileges associated with white skin in many Asian societies (P.C. Lan 2011; Lundström 2014; Maher and Lafferty 2014). The diversification of the white population in China matches the expansion of job markets for “foreigners” from coastal areas to smaller cities in the interior of the country. Due to the recent tightening in immigration controls and the rising tides of popular nationalism in Chinese society, the lived experiences of non-managerial and non-elite white migrants are increasingly marked by considerable tensions between privileges and precariousness (Farrer 2019; S. Lan 2021; Lehmann 2014; Leonard 2019; Stanley 2013).  However, little has been written on how different groups of white migrants make sense of and try to cope with this daily experience of precariousness.

       This paper focuses on two research questions: What are the opportunities and challenges faced by white migrants in different fields of employment and different geographical locations under the evolving nature of multiple Chinese gazes? How do various groups of white migrants engage with, negotiate, or resist the Chinese gazes through quotidian racialized performances? Existing literature on international migrants in China mainly focuses on black Africans in Guangzhou (S. Lan 2017; Bodomo 2012; Haugen 2012). The relative absence of whites in migration studies literature points to the racialization of “migrant” as a category reserved mainly for non-white people (Lundström 2017). This research denaturalizes whiteness as an invisible norm by rethinking it in a context of international labor migration and cross-cultural interaction. The paper attends to social stratification within the white population in China by moving beyond the binary between transnational corporate elites, who are often considered as privileged migrants (Camenisch and Suter 2019; Farrer 2019), and foreign English teachers, who are stigmatized as occupying a lower status within the expatriate community (Leonard 2019; Stanley 2013). Instead, it focuses on a group of middling migrants (Lehman 2014), namely self-initiated migrants who are neither recruited by transnational companies nor by talent schemes of Chinese universities, nor by commercialized brokers (as is the case of many foreign English teachers). I argue that although these white migrants have little control of the multiple and contradictory ways that they are racialized in Chinese society, they still demonstrate a certain degree of agency in manipulating the Chinese gazes for their benefit through strategic performances of different versions of whiteness. In this vein, the paper highlights the situational nature of whiteness, which is mediated by nationality, gender, class, Chinese language skills, and length of stay in China.

Author Bio

Shanshan Lan is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Moving Matters research group. She received her Ph. D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She had worked as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University and Connecticut College in the United States. Before joining the University of Amsterdam, she was a Research Assistant Professor in the David Lam Institute for East-West Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University. Lan is the Principal Investigator of the ERC project “The reconfiguration of whiteness in China: Privileges, precariousness, and racialized performances” (CHINAWHITE, 2019-2024). Funded by the European Research Council, this project examines how the western notion of whiteness is dis-assembled and re-assembled in the new historical context of China’s rise as a global superpower.

Disenchantment revisited: school life in Northwest China

Research Highlighted:

Tong, L. & Zhou, Y. (2021). Disenchantment revisited: school life in Northwest China. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2021.2006149

Typically understood through a universal-statist framework, modern schooling in contemporary China often contributes to the disenchantment of rural, migrant, and ethnic students. High dropout rates, lack of educational infrastructure, low household socioeconomic status (SES), poor academic attainment, and passive withdrawal inside classrooms are common among these groups. Constructed under the modernization framework, schooling is often treated as an instrument for linear social progress. It is anchored on the contested triumphalism that literacy and numeracy pave the foundation of human capital formation and economic development. Yet, for the many of those mentioned above, such an ideology remains disconnected from their daily lives. In many cases, it contradicts their epistemic practices and beliefs altogether.

Previous studies have tended to treat disenchantment as a fixed state, despite the presence of constant changes. Using an ethnographic approach, we focused more on the flow of these students’ daily lives. The questions that perplexed us and remain critically underexplored are: What eventually became of the disenchanted youth? Is disenchantment a state of mind, a period of status, or an enduring character? Are those disenchanted students always disappointed with their school lives?

Based on year-long ethnographic research in a Tibetan-serving secondary school in Northwest China, we provide additional insights on these questions. We combined participant observation with interviews in daily field activities. We examined a school relocation project for a Tibetan-serving community. This school relocation project aims to recruit Tibetan children from underdeveloped regions to receive better secondary education in urban and modern settings. It resembles many issues embodied by contemporary Chinese ethnic schooling: most students are from pastoral herdsman families, they have a low level of parental involvement in a boarding environment, and they have a low level of academic performance.


Our research question stems from an empirical puzzle. It was apparent from our observations that the students were not interested in the academically oriented classes. They admitted that they struggled with learning. They did very poorly on standardized tests. In other words, these Tibetan students are clearly maladjusted to the most salient educational ethos of today’s China: academic-oriented learning. This predicament can be explained on two levels. At the practical level, modern academic learning implies incremental effort, which requires the learner to consolidate prior knowledge and practice regularly. However, these elements are absent at the elementary level for the students we met. Few of them developed any real academic foundation due to the harsh living environment, low household SES, poor educational resources, low parental involvement, etc. Moreover, students were met with additional challenges at the cultural level after the relocation. Language barriers, culturally irrelevant curriculum, and epistemic dissonances disengage them from academic pursuits.

However, spending time in this school also made us realize that the classroom experience should be contextualized within the school’s larger social setting. We agreed with Abbott (2016) that change is the norm in social life. When viewing disenchantment from a processual point of view, it is natural to seek how the disenchantment plays out in social space and social time. To understand the changing nature of schooling, we use the ecological/processual approach. In this approach, schooling, like any social structure, is viewed as being in constant flux. We argue that to treat disenchantment as a fixed state ignores the space-temporal quality of human action. The school’s social process is multiple and momentary in nature and often undermines the seemingly linear educational programming. Under the seemingly rigid school setting emerge social spaces that expand beyond academic lessons, which constantly make and remake social actors. We argue that such moments of making and remaking show the personal agency of the students. We illustrate this point using two instances, that is, blackboard newspaper and physical/artistic activities.

Although we observed passive withdrawal inside the classroom, the scene outside of it was quite different. We observe students engaging in social moments with focus, passion, and enjoyment. Those disenchanted students did—consciously or unconsciously—explore other channels to create a new social space. They appropriated school tasks such as putting up routine blackboard newspapers. They also took advantage of the officially designated ‘free time’ to engage in sports and artistic activities. In those spaces, students continue to interact among themselves and with teachers, where withdrawal and marginalization happen alongside negotiation, appropriation, and participation. While disenchantment anchors the classroom experience of many, it interpenetrates and enmeshes with other aspects of student lives and is interwoven over time. By considering this complex interplay of disenchantment we upend the notion of disenchantment as a singular state.


In our case, students spent three to six years in a relocated community with peers and teachers, where disenchantment, be it at the initial or later stage of studying, often was evident. But at the same time, disenchantment intersected with other aspects of social life. The students we observed quickly shifted their attention and energy toward more appealing subjects. They slipped in content that speaks to their religious and ethnic beliefs despite knowing that their expression of religiosity and ethnic identity is not officially encouraged. Simply put, the schooling experience extends beyond academic learning and involves a significant amount of leisure time, sports, and extracurricular activities.

In several cases, they were stereotyped, challenged, or disciplined. But more often than not, they were sympathized with, acquiesced to, and even encouraged in some instances by teachers and administrators. It is in this sense that this study provides new insights into the studies of disenchanted youth. Globally, previous studies tend to view academic schools as places rife with tension, especially for ethnic students. However, we argue that some school space is actually porous and elastic. Beyond the seeming rigidity of time arrangement and of classroom and behavioral norms, there also existed spaces that were relatively free or spontaneous.

Therefore, by studying the conditioning forces that surrounded disenchanted students, we seek to provide new insights into educational policy research, as well as connect with the literature of social process. Beyond the Chinese setting, this study also provides a lesson to educators who work with minority youth in many developing countries. Today, rural/ethnic students in many countries do face a similar dilemma. Their schooling experiences deserve researchers’ further attention.

Authors’ Bio

Liqin Tong, University of Macau

Liqin Tong (Corresponding Author) is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Macau’s Faculty of Education. Her research interests focus on sociology of education, anthropology of education, and culturally relevant pedagogy. She can be contacted via email:

Dr Yisu Zhou, University of Macau

Yisu Zhou is an associate professor at the University of Macau’s Faculty of Education. He obtained his doctoral degree from Michigan State University’s College of Education. Yisu’s doctoral work is about the teaching profession (out-of-field teachers) using a large-scale survey from OECD. Yisu’s research interests in education policy span across various topics, including educational finance, teacher education, sociology and economics of education. He has published in American Journal of Education, Journal of Contemporary China, Asia-Pacific Education Researcher, Journal of School Health, Sociological Methods and Research, Social Science Computer Review, etc. He is currently serving on the editorial board of Multicultural Education Review.

From Digital Shock to Miniaturised Mobility: International Students’ Digital Journey in China

Research Highlighted:

Qi, J., Shen, W., & Dai, K. (2021). From Digital Shock to Miniaturised Mobility: International Students’ Digital Journey in ChinaJournal of Studies in International Education.


As Asia’s largest host country of international students, China’s digital placemaking is impacting on international students’ experience whilst studying and living in the country. This qualitative study addresses the issue of international students’ transition to the digital environment in China. It draws on the theoretical perspectives of international students’ digital journeys and miniaturised mobilities to inform thematic analysis of artefact-mediated student interviews and social media posts. Findings show that international students’ digital journeys in China are characterised by three modes of digital adaptation including digital shock, digital border crossing and digital approachability. We argue that engaging in these modes of digital adaptation has reconstituted international students’ subjectivity through empowering miniaturised mobility, but also a sense of digital in-betweenness as they operate between two different virtual worlds.


China has become the largest study abroad destination in Asia. This paper explores the digital experience of international students at the inter- section of two major trends in China, namely its intensive digital placemaking, and the rapid scaling up of its international student sector. We focus on the research question: how do international students make transitions to the Chinese digital landscape for their life and study? How have their uses of digital and mobile technologies in China impacted their lived experience and subjectivity?

Theoretically, the research design is underpinned by Chang and Gomes’ (2017, 2017) concept of international students’ digital journey and Elliott and Urry’s (2010) miniaturised mobilities. We conducted artefact-mediated interviews with inter- national students about their uses of digital and mobile technologies in China and collected international students’ posts on Chinese social media platforms. The findings through thematic analysis enable us to develop a new conceptualisation related to the interrelationship between China’s digitalisation and international students’ experiences and subjectivity.

Research Methods:

Informed by constructivist perspectives to research, this qualitative study collected two data sets including interviews with international students, and international students’ posts on Chinese social media platforms. The main data set for this study was generated through semi-structured, artefact-mediated interviews with individual international students. Participants were recruited using a snowballing technique, based on the criterion that they have studied in a Chinese university for a minimum of 12 months. A total of 12 international students were interviewed to elicit narratives and comments about their digital journey. These international students came from diverse economic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. Iterative coding was conducted with a focus on the process and action of international students’ digital relocation to China, and their reflections on subjectivity.


international students’ digital journeys in China are characterised by the three recurring themes of digital shock, digital border crossing, and digital approachability. We use the term digital shock to describe the state of mind of international students in China upon commencement of an intense digitally-enabled lifestyle. Such a digital shock, involving both excitement and anxiety, derives from their becoming aware of the pervasive digitalisation of everyday activities in Chinese urban spaces, the imperative of a new digital bundle, the linguistic challenge of the Chinese language cyberspace, and the idiosyncratic cyberspace control in China. Digital induction for international students includes organised or semi-organised university orientation programmes, student volunteer systems, and interaction with diasporic communities. Afterwards, international students transition into a digital culture that necessitates multiple practices of digital border crossing. These encompass guarding the border of convenience and overreliance, engaging multiple digital bundles, and transcultural and translanguaging online participation. Their digital experience is also influenced by issues of digital approachability associated with user designs of online platforms and proliferation of online education software post Covid-19.


International students’ digital journeys in China bear much resemblance to those of international students in Australia. Like Chang et al.’s (2021) findings about the latter, international students in China also demonstrated diverse online behaviours for information seeking. However, international students in China resort more to social networking sites rather than their institutions’ websites. This is due to the predominant role that WeChat plays in Chinese social and professional lives, but also the inadequate development of university websites in China.

Another similarity concerns the instrumental role of diasporic communities of assisting the digital transition of international students. These communities provide well-tailored spaces and networks for international students to seek information from others like themselves (Chang et al., 2021). These communities play a significant role in digital induction for international students to become acquainted with the affordances and challenges associated the new digital environment. One important difference for international students in China, compared to those in Australia, is a higher level of need to incorporate the new digital bundle into their digital resources. A digital journey that is marked by digital shock, digital border crossing and digital approachability lends fresh insights into understanding the digital subjectivity of international students in China. Miniaturised mobility is sustained by various infrastructures to support ongoing mobile connectivity. Paradoxically, international students’ miniaturised mobility in China is accompanied by challenges to accessing the internet outside of China. Whilst feeling frustrated by the Great Firewall, they exercise their agency through the uses of VPNs to access both digital bundles in order to keep up their networks and access additional learning resources. Therefore, international students’ digital subjectivities are moulded along and across the borderline of what one interviewee distinguishes as between ‘the Chinese internet and the international internet’. As they shift between different virtual worlds during their digital transition, their digital subjectivities are marked by a sense of in-betweenness.


Before the COVID-19 pandemic, new modes of digital (dis)connectivity in China had been remaking the urban spaces. This paper argues that digital placemaking in China in recent years has significant implications for international students’ digital transition to the new environment. International students’ digital journeys in China are marked by digital shock, digital border crossing, and digital approachability. We argue that engaging in these modes of digital adaptation has reconstituted international students’ subjectivity through empowering miniaturised mobility, but also a sense of digital in-betweenness as they operate between two different virtual worlds. These findings will be useful for higher education institutions and other international education stake- holders in China who seek to improve international student experience through engaging digital and online technologies. In addition, the internet industry in China may also find these nuanced insights useful to inform future designs of digital products that are more user-friendly for international students.

Authors’ Bio

Jing Qi is a Senior Lecturer at Social and Global Studies Centre, RMIT University. Jing publishes in the areas of digital education, transnational education, language edu- cation, doctoral education, and teacher education. Her book, Knowledge Hierarchies in Transnational Education, was published in 2015 by Routledge. Email:

Wenqin Shen is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at Graduate School of Education, Peking University. His research areas include internationalization of higher education, research training systems and doctoral education, and history of higher education. He has published extensively in these fields including two research monographs. Email:

Kun Dai is an Assistant Professor based at Department of Educational Administration and Policy, Faculty of Education, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on transnational education, intercultural learning and adjustment, and international student mobility. His book, ‘Transitioning in-between: Chinese Students’ Navigating Experiences in Transnational Higher Education Programmes’, has been published by Brill. Email:

Transitioning in-between: Chinese Students’ Navigating Experiences in Transnational Higher Education Programmes

Research Highlighted:

Dai, K. (2022). Transitioning ‘In-Between’. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. doi:


by Dr Kun DAI, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

In the past few decades, a growing number of scholars have explored topics related to transitional higher education (TNHE) and other relevant concepts (e.g., neoliberalism, globalisation, internationalisation, and marketisation). According to de Wit (2020), from 2010 to 2020, the number of international students has rapidly increased, and different types of TNHE (e.g., franchise operations, articulation programmes, branch campuses, and online education) have also been developed. The development of TNHE cannot be separated from the influence of globalisation. Higher education has been widely exported and imported between many developing and developed countries. Moreover, with the rapid development of the global economy and ICTs, especially the Internet, different cultures, societies, and countries have more opportunities to connect with others. Such close connections become an essential factor that promotes more in-depth cross-national communications in the field of higher education. However, students’ experiences in TNHE are still under-researched.

This book offers an account of Chinese students’ intercultural learning experiences in China-Australia transnational articulation programmes (TAP), which is one type of TNHEs. While these students learn in programmes that Chinese and Australian partner universities collaboratively operate, differences in educational practices still make them encounter barriers. To deal with cross-system differences, some students indicate a positive sense of agency. However, some of them feel disempowered. Notably, many students develop a sense of in-betweenness through learning in such programmes. Based on the investigation, Kun Dai argues that intercultural learning and adjustment in the transnational higher education context may become more complex than other forms of international education.

This book has eight chapters. The first chapter outlines the background, significance of this study, and research design. In Chapter 2, theoretical concepts/frameworks and empirical literature are discussed, respectively. From Chapters 3 to 6, findings are illustrated. Specifically, Chapter 3 focuses on illustrating students’ motivations and initial concerns in their TAPs. Chapter 4 maps their trajectories of intercultural learning and adjustment, especially as experienced in the Australian context, and compare their experiences in China. In Chapter 5, key factors influencing students’ intercultural learning and adjustment in TAPs is analysed. The author’s reflexive analysis as an “in-betweener” is presented in Chapter 6 to compare his experiences with participants’ journeys. In Chapter 7, Kun Dai systematically discusses the findings and attempt to propose a new conceptual lens to understand different types of “intercultural learning and adjustment” in a cross-cultural context and at a micro-political level. The last chapter, Chapter 8, concludes this book by pointing out the limitations of the reported research and providing future research suggestions.

Author Bio

Dr. Kun Dai is an Assistant Professor based at Department of Educational Administration and Policy, Faculty of Education, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on transnational education, intercultural learning and adjustment, educational policy, and international student mobility. His research outputs have appeared in several peer-reviewed journals, such as Compare, Journal of Studies in International Education, and Higher Education Research & Development. Dr Dai serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of International Students. Email: