‘Diaspora at home’: class and politics in the navigation of Hong Kong students in Mainland China’s Universities

Dr Cora Lingling Xu (PhD, Cambridge, FHEA) is Lecturer in Education at Keele University, UK. She is an editorial board member of British Journal of Sociology of Education and Cambridge Journal of Education. In 2017, Cora founded the Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities. She recently published an article in International Studies in Sociology of Education. In this entry, for Hong Kong Insight, Xu discusses how Hong Kong students’ ‘diaspora at home’ status has played both positive and negative roles in their educational and occupational navigation in mainland China.

Over the past decade, the number of Hong Kong students applying to study in mainland universities saw a tenfold surge. Between 2011 and 2016, a total of nearly 15,500 Hong Kong students applied. In 2017/18, more than 4,300 Hong Kong students were recruited to around 90 universities in mainland China. For working-class students who are unable to get into Hong Kong’s local universities due to systemic inequalities inherent in Hong Kong’s education system, universities in mainland China become appealing due to preferential admission policies and treatments. These include lowering of admission scores and provision of incentives such as low tuition fees, scholarships and better accommodation. Such preferential policies could be considered as politically motivated, underpinned by the disquieting Hong Kong-mainland China relations.

In my recent study in which I interviewed 23 Hong Kong students enrolled for undergraduate studies in 11 universities in Beijing and Nanjing, China, I found that class and politics play pivotal roles within these students’ higher education and job-seeking experiences, as informed by their ‘diaspora at home’ status. 

Image credit: Eliot Hall, University of Hong Kong by Colin Tsoi/Flicker, license CC BY-ND 2.0.

Regarding this ‘diaspora at home’ status, I argue that when Hong Kong returned to the PRC, overnight, the people of Hong Kong no longer belonged to the overseas Chinese diaspora. However, the legacy of colonial rule and Hong Kong’s special status continue to mark Hongkongers’ distinction from their counterparts in mainland China. This is a typical example in which the border migrated over people. Consequently, borrowing from Charusheela (2007, p. 295), Hongkongers ‘were suddenly narrated into the experiential status that diaspora marks when coded as the stranger[s]-within. They may not have crossed the border. The border crossed them.’ (original emphasis) Extending ‘diaspora’ to ‘diaspora at home’, in this case, seems fitting to capture the complex and multiple Chinese identities of the Hong Kong students who journey across the within-country border.

More specifically, I have drawn on interview data to argue firstly that the experiences of these Hong Kong students have been deeply politicised due to their ‘diaspora at home’ status; and secondly, that their class positions in Hong Kong have uniquely oriented them to take up the opportunities offered by the politically-motivated preferential higher education admission policies of the PRC government, due to the prospect of upward social mobility which was much less accessible in Hong Kong.

In navigating their journeys in mainland China, these students’ ‘diaspora at home’ status interplayed with the special ‘diasporic space’ in Beijing and resulted in these students’ exclusive access to an elite circle of Hongkongers made up of top-rank government officials and business elites. For instance, these students were often invited to attend social gatherings organised by the Beijing Office of the Hong Kong SAR government and the Hong Kong Commerce. Such social connections would not have been possible had they stayed in Hong Kong, and enabled these students to accumulate social capital that facilitated subsequent competitive internship and job opportunities. Getting admitted to prestigious mainland universities also provided these Hong Kong students much-needed institutional and professional prestige and channels to secure ‘dignified’ employments, either in mainland China or in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, the highly politicised nature of their ‘diaspora at home’ status has been characterised by their simultaneous roles as ‘political tokens’ for conveying political unity messages and as potentially ‘dangerous’ and ‘suspicious’ political others, subjecting them to intense public scrutiny, hostile political confrontations and surveillance on campus. While these Hong Kong students took advantage of the higher education and upward social mobility offered by the PRC government and institutions, they became unwittingly committed to serving as subjects (or indeed ‘tokens’) for fostering political integration. In these senses, the Hong Kong students could be considered as becoming ‘political sacrifices’ for the PRC government’s ‘state driven strategy…toward eventual political integration’ of ‘disarticulated political entities including Hong Kong’ (Lan and Wu, 2016, p. 745).

Adopting ‘diaspora at home’ as an analytical lens has made it possible to tease out the nuances of the types of exclusions and navigations that these Hong Kong students as ‘strangers-within’ have experienced, pertaining to politics and politicisation, and class and social mobility.