During 2018, 492,185 international students studied in China, meaning that it is now the third largest destination country in terms of total international. Despite this rapid expansion, there remains a dearth of research into international student mobility to China, including at the policy level. The research which exists on China’s higher education internationalisation as a whole suggests that the Chinese government’s rationale for internationalisation is somewhat unusual, in that it does not adopt a neoliberal market-orientated approach, as is the case in the other larger destination countries (e.g. Bolsmann & Miller, 2008; Lomer, 2017). Whilst there is somewhat of a consensus around China’s rationale for internationalisation broadly, the nuances and possible contradictions of policy texts and the various ways students’ roles are represented within them remain to be examined. An understanding of this is important not only as it aids in understanding how policy-makers conceptualise international students, but also because policies which refer to the recruitment of international students also have the potential to impact various facets of students’ experiences of living and studying abroad, as representations affect the way that students are perceived, as well as affecting students’ choices of study abroad destination and lived experiences. This study, by means of a qualitative thematic analysis of recent policy documents relating to the recruitment, education, and administration of international students in Chinese universities, seeks to understand the various ways that international students are presented within policy, as well as exploring the contradictions and implications of these representations. 19 texts related to China’s policy on incoming international students, released by government agencies, were selected for analysis. The dominant representation of students uncovered through the thematic analysis conceives of students as tools for the realisation of China’s foreign policy goals. This construction of students’ roles is common in other contexts, such as the UK and the USA (e.g. Lomer, 2017; Wilson, 2014), but in these contexts, a number of rationales co-exist, whereas in China the diplomatic rationale is relatively dominant within policy texts. The policy texts do not construct students as a source of income for China’s higher education system or as future workers, as is common in other contexts such as the UK, US, and Canada (Karram, 2013). The study also highlights contradictions and flaws within China’s policy constructions of students. The policy texts imply that students should spread ‘China’s story’ in a positive way, but in the case of China, several articles have attempted to assess students’ attitudes towards China, and conclusions about students’ attitudes towards China are mixed. Further, some arrangements, such as separate accommodation and courses, designed to attract international students and engender positive attitudes have the potential to backfire, as they may hinder the students’ deeper understanding of China and could cause their negative impressions towards their host. Finally, the expansion of English-taught courses, which aims to attract more international students, represents the supremacy of Western higher education that exemplifies a structural restriction on China’s stated goal of using international student recruitment as a means of cultural diplomacy.
Benjamin Mulvey is a PhD Candidate in the Department of International Education at the Education University of Hong Kong.
Will Lo is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Education at the Education University of Hong Kong.