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Chinese Transnational Education Migration

Postdoctoral Fellowship | 15/02/2018

“Attain your worth, let your dream soar” aspirational motto in a Beijing primary school.

This research project treats questions such as: What can the greatly increased interchange of Chinese students tell us about the generation of Chinese currently coming of age? And how will the students’ foreign experience influence Chinese-foreign relations in the future?

By Associate Professor, Anders Sybrandt Hansen, School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University

According to the most recent UNESCO estimates there were 801,000 Chinese nationals studying at higher education institutions outside the People’s Republic of China in 2016 [1]. 

Since the turn of the century this number has seen a fivefold increase, making China by far the largest source of transnational students – by comparison, India is second with 255,000 students abroad. 

Once highly closed off to most parts the world, China now sees a vast population movement of young people setting out across its national borders.

The top destinations for Chinese students abroad are the US, Japan, the UK and Australia (source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2017) [2].

With the support from the Carlsberg Foundation for this Postdoctoral Fellowship-project; “The Global Roles of China and the West: Views from the Chinese Elite” that ran from February 2013 to April 2015, I treated questions such as: 

1) What can this greatly increased interchange tell us about the generation of Chinese currently coming of age? 

2) And how will the students’ foreign experience influence Chinese-foreign relations in the future? 

The project’s central case study involved 34 Chinese students at Aarhus University (AU) in Denmark. Employing a longitudinal anthropological framework, I followed this cohort of students before, during, and, in some cases, after their stays abroad through spats of fieldwork in Beijing, Shanghai and Aarhus in 2013-2014.

The Chinese state invests massively in higher education and key universities are moving up the global ranking tables.

Yet it is still the common perception that education abroad is both more methodologically rigorous and academically rewarding.

In the 2017 Hurun survey, child education was mentioned as the top reason among China’s rich for considering migration[3].

Societal Relevance

The 19th and 20th century saw most parts of the globe forcefully pulled into a global economy, and world order dictated by Western power, hard and soft. 

Since then, China, a late-comer to the Western dominated globe, has risen as a world power pressing the problem of intercultural understanding and collaboration. 

This project investigated the current terms of intercultural interchange when young Chinese embark on extended educational stays in a Western society with thought-provoking results. 

Of particular importance to Danish society, my study found that Denmark, and Scandinavia more broadly, was associated with a particular set of imagined qualities that set it apart from both China and the United States.

From the narrow regional viewpoint of attracting transnational students, the project shows that Denmark, and Scandinavia more broadly, ought not emulate the US or the UK, as this would mean playing a game Scandinavia was bound to lose, but rather maintain its specificity as an alternative destination with particular qualities that set the region apart in its own right.

Diplomas, Horizons and Life Change Abroad

The currently widespread disposition to study abroad may be understood in relation to an imagined global education hierarchy. This hierarchy has at least four institutional and cultural supports: 1) tuition fees and admission requirements, 2) university ranking tables, 3) the global dominance of the English language in both academic and business circles, and 4) cultural place imaginaries – what Xin Liu calls “moral geography” [4]. 

Study abroad, it is frequently claimed, grants access to global academic standards, and overseas experience is held to be important in the eyes of prospective employers. It would nonetheless be a mistake to understand the potential life changes brought about by transnational education migration solely in terms of its economic rationality. 

In contemporary China, education in general, and study abroad in particular, calls for major financial investments, and in many cases, there is little hope that these investments will pay off [5].

"When I was in high school from 2006 to 2008 there were people who went abroad to study, but it was still relatively rare. It now seems as if every second student goes abroad. They are just following the trend: it looks as if everyone else is going abroad to pick up a diploma".” - Tang Xiaoli, 23-year-old student from Fudan University.

Physical education class at Anmin primary school for children of migrant workers in Beijing May 2015. Guaranteeing education for the children of China’s 250 million internal labour migrants is a central challenge for China’s education system.

One phrase was ubiquitous, when my informants explained why they set out: “I am going abroad to broaden my horizon”. This is a broadly ethical claim in the sense that it concerns perceptions of the self, ways of life, and life purposes. And this claim is not only voiced by students abroad. On the contrary, it has become a widely shared assumption among Chinese coming of age today [6].

This is significant because the strong imaginative link between studying abroad and the promise of life change has made for a situation in which the decision to study abroad is often fuelled by the desire for life change, as opposed to it existing only as an accidental “by-product” of a rational project of accumulating cultural capital abroad.

The choice of Denmark and AU as a study abroad destination for many of the students was a realistic compromise between their ambitions and their view of the competition from peers competing for the same stipends. That AU appeared in the top 100 in several university ranking tables was important for their choice.

"Moreover, it is people here in general – when I see people on the street, they are also quite leisurely, not hurried or impatient. So, I feel my entire person has calmed down." - Lin Yuhua, 23-year-old student from Peking University.

While abroad, other concerns took central place. My study found that Denmark, and Scandinavia more broadly, was associated with a particular set of imagined qualities of the social, cultural and natural environment. 

This set it apart from both China and the United States, the top destination for studies abroad: “Denmark was associated with welfare and social equality, a healthy and green environment, and a happy, affluent population … Compared to China, the tempo of life in Scandinavia was expected to be slower, it was thought there would be less societal pressure and that competition would be less intense, and Scandinavian people were expected to be more carefully fostering enjoyable lives.” [7] 

Reflecting on their life while abroad, several of the students used the phrase: ”Denmark is fit for living”. This was often expressed as a counterpoint to the urgency of life within the aspiring urban Chinese middle-class. For example, Xu Pengfei, a master student from China University of Political Science and Law put it this way: 

“I think I used to live too hurriedly. It was as if your entire life revolved around different, constantly changing issues. I am now more willing to think of each thing as an integral constituent of life – I will arrange each part, and together they will make up my entire life. I will perhaps have work, studies, friends, leisure activities, and time to myself. These things all have their own rhythm, and put together they make up a life. Life should not be thought of only as “having to finish this or that thing”; it should not be lived in a day-to-day fashion like that” [8].

A Carlsberg Foundation Fellowship in an Academic Trajectory

The project was undertaken in a close collaboration with AU Professor of China Studies, Stig Thøgersen, who concurrently worked on transnational educational interchange in the field of preschool teachers. 

In March 2014 we hosted an international conference at AU with fifty participants. In autumn 2015 we published two special issues of Journal of Current Chinese Affairs [9] and Learning and Teaching [10] with contributions from the research network established at this conference. And my research featured in the national newspaper Weekendavisen [11] and in regional TV and newspapers. 

Following up on the project, I produced in autumn 2015 a UNESCO-collection (hosted at Moesgård Museum in Aarhus) of ethnographic objects and teaching material intended for teaching the subject of Chinese conceptions of education and morality in Danish primary and secondary schools [12]. 

In 2016 I returned to the project material and wrote an article on Chinese educational ethics for the anthropological journal Jordens Folk [13]. I most recently presented the project results at Central Minzu University in Beijing on 20 June 2017, sustaining the intercultural exchange on what Chinese education migration means for China’s future.

"My Carlsberg Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship has been essential for a future career in academia." - Anders Sybrandt Hansen

It made it possible to engage for two years in the scientific activities that are expected of a candidate for a tenured position, and it has given me priceless field work experience with my Chinese interlocutors allowing me to learn from them what the future looks like seen through their eyes. 

February 1st 2018 I took up a position as associate professor of anthropology and China-studies at AU, and I am working in a three-person research group on an exciting new China project, ”The Moral Economies of Food in Contemporary China” that investigates the relations between food, market, ethics and trust [14].

[1] UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2017) ”Global Flow of Tertiary-Level Students”, retrieved 15 Dec. 2017:

[2] UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2017)

[3] 湖润百富 [Hurun Report] (2017) ”2017中国投资移民白皮书” [2017 Chinese Investment and Immigration White Book], p. 12, retrieved 20 Dec. 2017  

[4] Liu, Xin (2000), In One’s Own Shadow: An Ethnographic Account of the Condition of Post-Reform Rural China, Berkeley: University of California Press.

[5] See for example Xiang, Biao, and Wei Shen (2009) “International Student Migration and Social Stratification in China”, International Journal of Educational Development 29(5): 513–522.

[6] Fong, Vanessa (2011), Paradise Redefined: Transnational Chinese Students and the Quest for Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World, Stanford: Stanford University Press, Thøgersen, Stig (2012) “Chinese Students’ Great Expectations”, Learning and Teaching 5(3): 75-93.

[7] Hansen, Anders S. (2015a) ”The Temporal Experience of Chinese Students Abroad and the Present Human Condition”, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 44(3): 49-77, p. 63.

[8] Hansen, Anders S. (2015a), p. 70.

[9] Hansen, Anders S and Stig Thøgersen (2015a) “The Anthropology of Chinese Transnational Educational Migration”, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 44(3): 1–14.

[10] Hansen, Anders S. and Stig Thøgersen (2015b) “Chinese Transnational Students and the Global Education Hierarchy”, Learning and Teaching 8(3): 1–12.

[11] Hansen, Anders S. (2015b) “Danmark egner sig til livet: Kinesiske studerende i Danmark” [Denmark is fit for living – Chinese students in Denmark], Weekendavisen (Idéer p.7) 23 Jan 2015.

[12] Hansen, Anders S. (2016a)”Kina – dannelse og uddannelse” [China – Civility and Education], UNESCO Samlingerne

[13] Hansen, Anders S. (2016b) “Bitterhedens etik: En kritik af ægteskabet mellem foretagsomhed og konservatisme med etnografi fra Kina” [The Ethics of Bitterness)], Jordens Folk 51(3-4): 54–61.