Crisscrossing scapes in the global flow of elite mainland Chinese students

Woo, E.& Wang, L. (2023). Crisscrossing scapes in the global flow of elite mainland Chinese students. High Education. 1-16.

The Landscapes of Global Flows: Mainland Chinese Students’ Mobility in an Era of ‘Fluid’ Globalisation 

Traditionally, tertiary education has often been regarded as a national sector rooted within a national boundary, reflecting an era in which the nation-state was the dominant territory of mobility. However, the interplay of higher education commercialisation, information technology, and globalisation has drawn the planes of international student mobility (ISM). While vertical mobility – moving to a country where universities are regarded as being superior in quality to those of the home countries – remains the dominant form of ISM, horizontal mobility (such as the Erasmus programme) and multidimensional mobility, which comprises multiple territories involving vertical and horizontal or even reverse mobility (i.e. the opposite of vertical mobility), are becoming increasingly common. Consequently, the hitherto dominant analytical frameworks focussing on agency, structure, and acculturation can no longer capture the complexity and fluidity of ISM as they cannot account for the complications of mobility arising from not only its multi-dimensionality but also from the attendants of globalisation, such as the globalised nature of social media. Therefore, we propose to understand ISM from the perspective of global flows. 

Anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai, urges us to view globalisation as landscapes of flows. His five landscapes of global flow cover ethnoscapes, technoscapes, mediascapes, ideoscapes and financescapes. They reference the topography of people’s mobility, the global reconfiguration of technology, the distribution and dissemination of information, the concatenation of ideas, concepts and ideologies, and the disposition of capital. According to him, these scapes explain how cultures around the world influence each other. These constructs are expected to capture global flows’ complex, overlapping, and disjunctive order. We applied Appadurai’s notion of scapes to study the global flow of these elite mainland students in the immediate aftermath of HK’s large-scale social protests and amidst the Covid-19 pandemic to understand why these students relocated to HK to further their studies given these turbulent circumstances and how their mainlander identity and experiences in the West influence their perceptions of HK’s social movements.

Our research employed semi-structured interviews and naturalistic observation to gather data. We recruited 30 mainland Chinese students from our case university in Hong Kong (HK)- a premier institution, top-ranked in East Asia for its promotion of internationalisation and global competitiveness. These participants are PhD candidates at our case university. What makes them unique is their educational trajectory and education credentials. Before enrolling at our case university, 27 participants had obtained at least one degree from an elite Western university considered a research-intensive flagship university, such as a Russel Group university in the UK or an Ivy League or ‘Public Ivy’ in the US. Moreover, 25 participants were recipients of the most prestigious scholarship offered by our case university or the HK government.

Regarding ethnoscape, each segment of our participant’s mobility (e.g., from mainland China to the West) was characterised by different logic and challenges. HK represented the ‘best’ compromise for our participants, mitigating their nostalgia for home (i.e., mainland China), which was not so much pandemic-induced, whilst offering superior education to the Chinese mainland. Despite their familiarity with the ‘messy politics’ of Western democracies, they generally held a negative and disapproving view of HK’s social movements. Our participants argued that HK people’s pursuit of autonomy should be subordinated to the putative Chinese national interests. We would characterise such an ideoscape as nationalistic, comprising the othering of their HK compatriots. HK’s position as a global education hub propped up, not least by its generous funding schemes (at both university and government levels), is a telling illustration of the influence of global financescape in global higher education and ISM. The importance of the incentivising role in ISM was vindicated in our study: Generous scholarships provided additional incentives driving our participants’ relocation to HK. We often take the formless, shapeless, borderless and timeless techno-media for granted because they are so pervasive that we forget their existence. Our study finds that the techno-mediascape (flow of information) played an indispensable role in stirring up an embattled relationship between the nation (HK) and the state (the government in Beijing), as perceived by our participants. The persistent consumption of Chinese social media, such as WeChat, was found to have resulted in worldview conformity between our participants and the Chinese state. This worldview normalises how our participants viewed HK social movements and social activists involved, thereby driving a wider wedge between the already segregated mainland and HK student population on campus.  

While recognising the limitations of our study, such as the small sample size, we believe our explorative study has contributed to mobility studies.  ISM, rooted in globalisation, is multifaceted and heterogeneous. To capture the complex nature of multi-sited mobility, we conceptualise scapes as the building blocks of ISM. Our endeavour represents a re-conceptualisation of the two-way horizontal or vertical mobility into more fluid crisscrossing mobility of people, ideas, techno-media and finance. Our paper also demonstrates that the landscapes of global flows that undergird ISM are crisscrossing, embedded in one another, and mutually constitutive. Moreover, Appadurai stipulates that disjunctures, instead of homogeneity, grow out of these flows. This prognosis is vindicated in our study, which shows that these flows can act as centripetal and centrifugal forces in our students’ transnational mobility – for example, social media helps bind mainland students with a shared worldview while separating them from their HK local counterparts. 

Authors’ Bio:

Etienne Woo is a teaching associate at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, where he recently completed a PhD in education. His research interests centre around the intersections of power, politics, and knowledge, with a focus on critical policy analysis, Chinese higher education, and globalising higher education.

Ling Wang is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include academic work, higher education policies and leadership, doctoral education, and professional development of researchers.

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)