“From ‘Sea Turtles’ to ‘Grassroots Ambassadors’: The Chinese Politics of Outbound Student Migration.”

Research highlighted

Liu, Jiaqi M. “From ‘Sea Turtles’ to ‘Grassroots Ambassadors’: The Chinese Politics of Outbound Student Migration.” International Migration Review, (November 2021). https://doi.org/10.1177/01979183211046572.

Jiaqi Liu, University of California, San Diego

Global student migration is on the rise. As of 2017, over six-million tertiary students were studying outside their origin countries. International students exert enormous economic impacts, contributing $45 billion to the US economy alone in 2018. On the other side of the migratory channel, China has steadily established itself as the world’s largest source country of student migrants since 1998, when the earliest UNESCO data are available, with the global percentage of Chinese student migrants more than doubling from 7% in 1998 to 17% in 2017.

Given that China is the world’s most populous country, it may not be surprising that China also has the largest number of overseas students. However, the mammoth size of the Chinese student population abroad is not a historical constant. In 1978, when China began promoting large-scale outbound student migration, it had only 860 overseas students. In less than four decades, this number ballooned by 535 times to 460,000 in 2014. Scholars attribute this dramatic growth to a constellation of domestic factors, including the rising Chinese middle class and their conversion of economic capital into cultural capital, China’s competitive domestic education system, the Confucian pursuit of better education, the brokerage of commercial education agents, and pull factors in destination countries.

Nonetheless, the existing literature on international student migration/mobility (ISM) pays scant attention to China’s changing policies toward outbound student migration. Constrained by the prevalent immigration bias in migration studies, scholars tend to focus on host countries’ international education and post-graduation employment policies regarding inbound student migrants, while casting less attention on sending countries. This article, by examining China, the largest origin country of student migrants in the world, illuminates how home countries regulate and strategize about overseas students.

Utilizing three qualitative methods, including a historical policy review, an ethnography in state-organized summer camps for overseas students, and interviews with student migrants and migration officials, I propose two main arguments. First, I argue that the Chinese outbound student migration politics – which I define as the collectivity of the homeland state’s policies, practices, and rhetorics toward overseas students – serves three policy objectives: economic, governmental, and geopolitical. These objectives, however, are not set in stone. Rather, their relative significance ebbs and flows, depending on the sending country’s specific socioeconomic and political conditions. As I show, following decades of prioritizing the economic and governmental impacts of student returnees (haigui, or colloquially “sea turtles”) in boosting the domestic economy and maintaining political stability, the Chinese state now gives growing weight to student migrants’ geopolitical value as “grassroots ambassadors” (minjian dashi) in expanding China’s global influence and enhancing national image abroad. This geopolitical reorientation has become particularly salient under the Xi Jinping leadership, as China adopts more assertive soft power strategies in pursuit of global supremacy.

Drawing on ethnographic and interview data, my second argument suggests that the geopolitics-focused reorientation of China’s OSM policy may not be well received among student migrants nor fully implemented by migration officials at the grassroots or local level. Whereas Chinese students faced surging espionage accusations across the world in recent years, I refrain from taking for granted the close political ties between the Chinese state and overseas students, as depicted in rhetorical flourish by the Western media and Chinese national strategies. Instead, I examine the on-the-ground disjuncture between the central Chinese state, student migrants, and frontline bureaucrats. Based on grounded empirical research, I shed new light on the OSM politics as a contentious field where state ambitions crosscut individual desires and where national grand plans are confronted with flexible local improvisation.

In particular, I conducted participant observation in three state-run, voluntary retreats for overseas students in an emigrant hometown in southeast China. Following my interviews with migration officials, I was invited by these trips’ organizers to participate in three such events. In the end, I carried out over 100 hours of participant observation in these trips over July and August 2019. The summer trips provided an ideal lens to closely examine the quotidian operation of outbound student migration policies, as well as the deep-running tensions between national grand plans, local bureaucratic improvisation, and student migrants’ own desires.

My tripartite model of outbound student migration politics – economic, governmental, and geopolitical – strives to facilitate scholarly dialogue between ISM and diaspora studies. While the burgeoning mobility paradigm emphasizes neoliberalism’s crucial role in promoting the transition from international education to labor immigration in destination countries, this article pushes China to center stage and examines the homeland state’s changing, yet-unabating, interests in regulating and positioning overseas students in both national policies and local implementation.

Author Bio

Jiaqi M. Liu is a PhD candidate at the University of California, San Diego, studying the political sociology of international migration.  Building on multidisciplinary training and professional experiences in sociology, international politics, and law, Jiaqi adopts mixed qualitative methods to explore the crossroads between international migration, diaspora politics, citizenship laws, and transborder governance. His articles have appeared at International Migration Review and Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies and won the 2020 Aristide Zolberg Distinguished Student Scholar Award from the American Sociological Association.

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. https://doi.org/10.1177/10283153211065135


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: jing.qi@rmit.edu.au

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: shenwenqin@pku.edu.cn

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: daikun1219@163.com