Governing through ambiguity in the normalizing society: The lesson from Chinese transnational higher education regulation

Research highlighted

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:

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.

Authors’ Bio

Dr. Xiao Han,
Tianjin University

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:

Managing editor: Xin Fan

Coping Strategies of Failing International Medical Students in Two Chinese Universities: A Qualitative Study

Jiang, Q., Yuen, M., & Horta, H. (2023). Coping Strategies of Failing International Medical Students in Two Chinese Universities: A Qualitative Study. Teaching and learning in medicine, 1–11.


A large number of international medical students are enrolled in Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) programmes in China. The overwhelming majority of these students are from low-income countries in Asia and Africa and are self-supported. These students expend substantial personal and financial effort to come to China to become medical doctors and to contribute to the healthcare workforce in their home countries. However, little is known about their educational success as international students attending Chinese universities. Even less is known about how international medical students who initially fail courses in Chinese medical universities manage to subsequently achieve academic success. Therefore, we explored the coping strategies adopted by international medical students after they fail exams during MBBS training. 

Research methods

This qualitative study was set in two Chinese medical universities in Jiangsu province, China. We adopted a purposive sampling method and interviewed international medical students who had a record of failing courses but successfully passing make-up exams and re-sits. A total of 21 international students from developing countries in Asia and Africa were recruited. Semi-structured face-to-face and virtual (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) interviews were conducted with these students. During the interviews, we encouraged the participants to describe the difficulties they experienced in their courses, the academic challenges they faced, and how they coped with and then overcame the experience of failing initial exams. A thematic analysis approach was adopted to analyse the interview data. 


After failing initial exams, the international medical students in the sample adopted seven coping strategies to help them pass future examinations and recover their academic success: (i) increased help-seeking behaviours; (ii) improved learning motivation and attitudes; (iii) improved learning strategies; (iv) improved exam preparation; (v) utilised library resources; (vi) enhanced time management; and (vii) enhanced English language skills. Of these seven strategies, seeking the help of friends, peers, seniors, and teachers was the strategy reported most frequently. 


We found that failing international medical students are not necessarily passive or lazy learners (as they may commonly be perceived); in fact, they demonstrated resilience and agency to cope with failure. The coping strategies applied by the participants in our study were consistent with the findings of others studies: effective learning strategies and exam preparation (Bin Abdulrahman et al., 2021), social support (Todres et al., 2012), intrinsic learning motivation (Hayat et al., 2018; Wu et al., 2020), the utilisation of campus resources (Banjong, 2015), efficient time management (Foong et al., 2022), and adequate English skills (Su & Harrison, 2016). 

However, unlike other studies that found that failing medical students often fail to seek help from their institutions or peers, the participants in our study reported proactively initiating help-seeking behaviours after failing exams. There are several possible reasons for these different findings. First, the university staff in the establishments in this study may be approachable and willing to help the students. The participants did not mention institutional efforts to proactively support relationship formation and mentorship or institutional support to overcome exam failure, but some mentioned that a few teachers tried to help them as much as possible. Another explanation for the students’ proactive help-seeking behaviour may be the international students’ own cultures. Many South Asian, Southeast Asian, and African cultures are strongly rooted in close social mutual support and interaction (Rabbi & Canagorajah, 2021), and this may have played a positive role in promoting proactive help-seeking behaviours and positive responses from peers, teachers, and seniors. The help-seeking behaviours may also be due in part to the fact that in China, international students in MBBS programmes live and study together in collective learning communities for up to 6 years. Daily interactions with peers, seniors, teachers, and student administrators may foster trust and support among them, making students more willing to seek support and help from these sources. This setup may create a strong sense of community, where teachers, seniors, students perceived as academically successful, and others may serve as role models and mentors for international students, advising and actively supporting them in overcoming exam failure (Arthur, 2017). Another possible reason is that intense academic or career competition may not occur among these students, as they will ultimately leave China and return to their home countries to take local licensing exams or even migrate to a third country.

Social support, particularly seeking help from immediate friends, was stressed by the participants as an aspect of all seven of the coping strategies identified in this study. This highlights the vital role that social support plays in helping international medical students (and likely other international students) with their academic performance (Sandars et al., 2014). A supportive environment that fosters students’ relationships with their peers and teachers can be a positive ‘hidden curriculum’ that is conducive to learning (Sandars et al., 2014). An important finding is the medical students’ use of peer-assisted learning in the form of group study, along with occasional individual tutoring, which has been recognised in the literature as a useful method adopted by students to overcome academic problems (Brierley et al. 2022).


Chinese medical institutions may wish to recognise the resilience and agency of failing international medical students and make positive changes to help them achieve academic success. Institutional efforts could be made to develop contextualised intervention plans that stimulate students’ learning motivation and encourage them to adopt self-help strategies by making useful resources (e.g., help from peers, seniors, and teachers) available. To pre-empt the problem, enrolment could become more selective and could integrate specific English language proficiency criteria, interviews, and entrance exams. Although many international medical students demonstrate resilience and agency, some failing students may require academic remediation.


Arthur, N. (2017). Supporting international students through strengthening their social resources. Studies in Higher Education42(5), 887–894.

Banjong, D. N. (2015). International students’ enhanced academic performance: Effects of campus resources. Journal of International Students5(2), 132–142.

Bin Abdulrahman, K. A., Khalaf, A. M., Bin Abbas, F. B., & Alanazi, O. T. (2021). Study habits of highly effective medical students. Advances in Medical Education and Practice12, 627–633.

Brierley, C., Ellis, L., & Reid, E. R. (2022). Peer-assisted learning in medical education: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medical Education56(4), 365–373.

Foong, C. C., Bashir Ghouse, N. L., Lye, A. J., Pallath, V., Hong, W.-H., & Vadivelu, J. (2022). Differences between high- and low-achieving pre-clinical medical students: a qualitative instrumental case study from a theory of action perspective. Annals of Medicine54(1), 195–210.

Hayat, A. A., Salehi, A., & Kojuri, J. (2018). Medical student’s academic performance: The role of academic emotions and motivation. Journal of Advances in Medical Education & Professionalism6(4), 168–175.

Rabbi, S., & Canagarajah, S. (2021). Cosmopolitanism and plurilingual traditions: Learning from South Asian and Southern African practices of intercultural communication. In The Routledge Handbook of Plurilingual Language Education (pp. 82-95). Taylor and Francis.

Sandars, J., Patel, R., Steele, H., McAreavey, M., & Association for Medical Education Europe. (2014). Developmental student support in undergraduate medical education: AMEE Guide No. 92. Medical Teacher36(12), 1015–1026.

Su, M., & Harrison, L. M. (2016). Being wholesaled: An investigation of Chinese international students’ higher education experiences. Journal of International Students6(4), 905–919.

Todres, M., Tsimtsiou, Z., Sidhu, K., Stephenson, A., & Jones, R. (2012). Medical students’ perceptions of the factors influencing their academic performance: an exploratory interview study with high-achieving and re-sitting medical students. Medical Teacher34(5), e325-31.

Wu, H., Li, S., Zheng, J., & Guo, J. (2020). Medical students’ motivation and academic performance: the mediating roles of self-efficacy and learning engagement. Medical Education Online, 25(1), 1742964.

Authors’ bio

Dr Qinxu Jiang holds a doctoral degree from the Faculty of Education, the University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on academic success, life satisfaction, student mobility of international medical students, and medical faculty development. E-mail:

Dr Hugo Horta is an Associate Professor, Director of the Consortium for Higher Education Research in Asia (CHERA), and Director of the MeD programme at the Faculty of Education of the University of Hong Kong. He is also the Chairperson of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) and Coordinating-editor of the journal Higher Education. His main topics of interest are academic research processes, outputs and outcomes (including strategic research agendas), academic mobility and academic inbreeding, and career trajectories of PhD holders. E-mail:

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)

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)

Revisiting Symbolic Power and Elite Language Education in China: A Critical Narrative Ethnography of the English Education Major at a Top Language University in Shanghai

Liu, Y., Nam, B. H., Yang, Y. (2023). Revisiting symbolic power and elite language education in China: A critical narrative ethnography of the English education major at a top language university in Shanghai. Educational Review, 1-26.

English as a de facto global lingua franca is a commonly accepted concept in a contemporary global society. Accordingly, the promise of English language teaching (ELT) as an academic profession and the use of English as a medium of instruction (EMI) as a bilingual/multilingual practice have become barometers of economic globalization and internationalization of higher education (IHE). Indeed, many non-Anglophone and monolingual nations have adopted a neoliberal approach to language panning and educational development, using ELT and EMI to participate in cosmopolitan academic and market competition. Opportunities for cooperation within diverse professional industries often make ELT a worthwhile venture in the educational industry. However, the hegemonic position of the English language potentially divides classes based on socioeconomic status. Thus, the Anglophone ideology and its linguistic capitalism have long been ingrained into many non-English-speaking countries’ educational systems and social structures. Meanwhile, China has demonstrated an even more complex example of language planning and educational development. Despite the promise of ELT and EMI for many college students enrolled at prestigious universities, concerns have been growing about the decline in the number of English majors and structural problems in elite language education reflected in the rural-urban divide and resulting educational gaps. In this context, the English education major at a top language-intensive university could serve as a key site for this investigation. In China, English education means teacher education in English that aims to foster public school teachers. Hence, this study explored the life course stages of Chinese students who were originally from rural areas or socioeconomically underrepresented regions/districts and majoring in English education at a top language-intensive university located in Shanghai, along with the concerns about the decline of English-related majors.

This study drew insights from Pierre Bourdieu’s thinking tools, such as social and cultural capital, especially using his work, “Language and Symbolic Power,” to look at the life course stages of 18 students. By adopting a critical narrative ethnographic approach, two Chinese authors and one American author examined how Chinese students majoring in English education at a top-tier, language-intensive institution in Shanghai cultivated linguistic habitus and capital in the stratified realm of elite language education; factors influencing their academic major choice; and ways to broaden horizons and worldviews about prospective careers, despite the decline of English-related majors in the current Chinese higher education system. Thus, the authors conducted direct and participant observations, developed field notes, and conducted in-depth interviews with study participants. The findings showed that mothers’ involvement significantly influenced students’ motivation to learn English, college admission, and academic major choice. However, students also developed personal perceptions about career prospects while in college. Accordingly, this study suggested these four primary themes: (a) “Mothers’ Involvement”: Family Habitus and the Development of Linguistic Capita; (b) “On the Glorious Journey to Shanghai”: Motivation, Admission, Major, and Career Prospects; (c) Securing the Accumulated Linguistic Capital and Rebranding It to Cosmopolitan Capital; (d) From English Teacher to Be…”: Career Transitioning to the Global Academia. 

This study promoted scholarly discussions. Initially, it was significant to view Chinese mothers as gatekeepers and participants’ cultivation of linguistic habitus and capital in elite education from the domestic perspective. Participants’ family habitus inevitably differed based on socioeconomic status. However, the most common and generalizable factor was their mothers’ involvement in their education as gatekeepers. Mothers were driven to help their children achieve their academic aspirations, regardless of their financial circumstances. As evidenced throughout the participants’ narratives, their mothers provided financial support even if their families faced financial challenges. Thus, linguistic habitus and capital can be fostered through collective and committed efforts by both parents and children. Furthermore, it was instrumental in interpreting how participants managed their accumulated linguistic capital in the stratified realm of global education. They believed that obtaining admission to higher education institutions in the most economically advanced and cosmopolitan city would lead to numerous career opportunities. Many were initially interested in pursuing careers as English teachers at public schools. However, through socialization with diverse peers and foreign teachers and new sociocultural learning experiences, they broadened their horizons about future career prospects. Further, they engaged in extracurricular activities to accumulate linguistic capital and rebrand it as cosmopolitan capital, such as cross-cultural and linguistic competencies and professional interdisciplinary knowledge. From Bourdieusian social and cultural reproductive perspectives, while students from relatively wealthy families in urban areas have more access to social-emotional support from their parents, a greater opportunity to develop self-efficacy and cultivate positive social and cultural personae, students from rural areas have fewer opportunities to gain such benefits in the competitive academic ecological system. Due to inadequate fundamental forms of social and cultural capital, not every student can obtain entry into prestigious universities. Given the nature of competitive elite education, only some students gain support from social agents to foster a positive schooling experience, socialization process, and personal development. 

Moreover, this study presented the ethnographers’ reflexive turns on symbolic power and elite language education in China. From the American author’s perspective as an outsider, contemporary China seems more globalized and multicultural than ever. The country has hosted numerous international mega-events, promoted important slogans of actions, such as the social importance of education, informatization of education, digitalization of education, and emphasized cultural heritage conservation through its historical sites and world-class museums. However, inner cultural conflicts and educational inequality issues frequently hinder the effectiveness of the current movement of socialist education with Chinese characteristics, which should demonstrate prosperity, justice, equality, candor, and trustworthiness. From the Chinese authors’ standpoints as insiders, the mainstream Chinese academy has seen that many younger generations have developed decolonial awareness from Anglophone linguistic ideology, valuing their native language over English in diverse public places, social spaces, and cultural events. However, ELT and EMI have still been dominant in Chinese higher education curricula and worldwide, despite many nations’ aspirations for promoting decolonial awareness.

Additionally, the English education major at a top-tier language-intensive university in Shanghai has developed some optimistic perceptions and attitudes toward their career transition out of post-secondary education. Indeed, China is a prominent socialist regime. Thus, the nation emphasizes social equality of education by fostering qualified teachers for the public education system and language talents who can serve their nations’ cultural diplomacy and international relations. Thus, investigating the life course stages and how a cohort of socioeconomically non-elite students develop optimistic social imaginaries and educational values, becoming academically “elite” students is meaningful. This has positive implications for promoting critical pedagogic theory and practice in teacher education. Finally, this study called upon scholars to rethink the meaning of symbolic power and elite language education in a broader global context. From Western and Anglophone standpoints, scholars have often positioned international students from China and across the world in institutions of Anglophone higher education as potential cosmopolitan elites armed with English proficiency, foreign academic degrees, and global social network circles. However, numerous Chinese higher education institutions have also made great efforts to provide students with opportunities to develop cosmopolitan capital by promoting international student mobility and academic migration. Therefore, domestic students in China may have greater opportunities to become equalized to those international students in Anglophone nations and broaden their cosmopolitan worldviews and horizons regarding their academic goals and career prospects regardless of their socioeconomic status and sociocultural circumstance.

Authors’ bio:

Dr. Yuanyuan LIU, Shanghai International Studies University

Dr. Yuanyuan LIU is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Shanghai International Studies University. Her research focuses on English language education policies in China, teachers’ and students’ identity construction in relation to their lived experiences of transnational mobility, multilingualism, and online learning. Her publication appears in international peer-reviewed journals, such as Current Issues in Language PlanningJournal of Language, Identity and EducationHumanities & Social Sciences CommunicationsEducational Review, and so on. She can be contacted via email:

Dr. Benjamin H. Nam, Shanghai International Studies University

Dr. Benjamin H. Nam is an associate professor in the School of Education and a senior researcher in the Center for Comparative Study of Global Education at Shanghai International Studies University. His current research interests and focus center on comparative and international education, sociolinguistics, STEAM education, and vocational education. He is an editorial board member of the International Journal of Intercultural Relations and the Journal of Intercultural Communication and Interactions Research. He is also a member of the International Academy for Intercultural Research (IAIR), Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), and Society of Transnational Academic Researchers (STAR). He can be contacted via email:

Miss Yicheng YANG, the University of Pennsylvania

Miss Yicheng YANG is currently a graduate student studying Intercultural Communication in the M.S. in Education program at the Graduate School of Education, the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include symbolic competence development in foreign language education, intercultural competence and capital building, and immigrant identity development. Her publications appear in international peer-reviewed journals, such as International Journal ofIntercultural Relations and Educational Review. She can be contacted via email:

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun) Bian

“Your skin is like crocodile’s”: A case study of an African wài guó student in China

Xu, W., & Stahl, G. (2023). “‘Your skin is like crocodile’s’: a case study of an African wài guó student in China“. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1-12.

In China, racialised ‘Othering’ can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn period (770-403 B.C.). The ethnic differences between ‘civilised Han Chinese’ and the ‘barbarian others’ were essentialised, with the geographic location and skin colour being used as determinants of foreignness (Wyatt, 2010). Han people, who possessed a lighter skin complexion and conformed to the Confucius moral codes, were perceived to be superior to other populations. This ideology of Han ethnocentrism appears to resonate with various forms of racism in the West, whereby differing skin colours, phenotypes, ‘ethnicities’ and ‘cultural backgrounds’ are employed as institutional and representational tools to categorise humans, so as to reinforce white supremacist ideologies (Ellefsen, Banafsheh, & Sandberg, 2022). In contemporary China, racially coded languages and derogatory labels such as ‘threat’, ‘violent blacks’, ‘black devils’ (hēi guǐ), or even ‘significant sources of risk’ are often used when referring to the Black communities (Bodomo, 2020; Daniels, 2014). These racial ideologies circulating in public spaces further consolidate the racial boundaries between ‘the Chinese Self’ and ‘the African Other’ (Lan, 2016; Liang & Le Billon, 2020).

Although much of the current research focuses on the patterns of the racialisation processes (see, for example, Carling & Haugen, 2021; Ho, 2017; Lan, 2016; Liang & Le Billon, 2020), there remains surprisingly little scholarship addressing how African international students exercise agency to reduce inter-group prejudices against all the odds and ‘bridge’ racial divides in China (Bodomo, 2010, 2012). In the paper ‘Your skin is like crocodile’s’: A case study of an African wài guó student in China published in Globalisation, Societies & Education (doi: 10.1080/14767724.2023.2193317), we presented a case study of a 25-year-old Burundian young man named Alex’s as he travelled on public transport to China’s rural areas. We were interested in both the dialogue (Freire, 2000) he established with village elders and his own self-dialogue concerning race relations. 

Informed by Freire’s (2000) conceptualisation, our findings indicated that dialogic practices assisted both Alex and the Chinese to recognise cultural differences, develop autonomy and courage. Dialogues became a conscientização process, where the Chinese Alex encountered may have critically realised that they lived in a world where stereotypes, colour prejudice and dominant beliefs oppressed their free expression and action, as well as imaginaries of other racial and ethnic group(s). Freire (2005, p. 83) would describe Alex’s adventure in China as a journey as ‘from reading to word to reading the world’. 

The data also suggested that Alex’s consciousness of himself and others was enhanced which could work to break down stereotypes, ignorance or racism which impedes intercultural interaction (Freire, 2005). The multi-way dialogue arguably liberated Alex’s voices to speak directly to the Chinese in Chinese, but also enabled him to critically read the Chinese society/culture departing from the positionalities of the Chinese. Therefore, Alex’s dialogic practices in China could be framed as ‘intercultural action for freedom’, where both his identity and the Chinese villagers’ identities are (re)shaped collectively through dialogue. 

Our finding are congruent with Flores (2021) who asserts that ‘Preparing students of color to navigate a racist world is not anti-racist unless it is coupled with providing them with tools to challenge (not just accommodate) racism’. Dialogue, in conjunction with the Chinese language, appears to be such a tool, fostering opportunities to awaken consciousness, and closing down the lure of stereotypes that leading to racism (see Li, 2021).

We advocate that the spotlight can be shed on fundamental public pedagogy concerning critical consciousness achievement among both Chinese and African communities in China. The opposition to racism ‘from below’ and in naturally occurring interactions might be expanded into social movements, contributing to reclaimed dignity and leading to collective actions that trigger socio-structural change. 


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Authors’ bio:

Dr Wen Xu, East China Normal University, China

Dr. Wen Xu is a post-doc research fellow at East China Normal University, China. Her research interests focus on language(s) education and society, socio-cultural studies of education, learner identities, and equity/inequality. Considering the worldwide growing upheaval and scepticism around Chinese language education, she writes extensively on how Chinese literacy can be theorised as a pathway towards equity and upward social mobility for Australian students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. She can be contacted via email:

Dr. Garth Stahl, University of Queensland, Australia

Dr. Garth Stahl is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, Australia. His research interests focus on the relationship between education and society, socio-cultural studies of education, student identities, equity/inequality, and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference as well as educational reform.

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)