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Chinese Student Diaspora: Why Does It Matter?

Perspectives on Student Migrants

The study of Chinese student migrants should be put in the broader context of Chinese diaspora today. Despite the lack of research on the direct links between international students and coethnic communities in destination countries, the existing literature explains the phenomenon from three perspectives: international migration, global diaspora and social networking.

From the perspective of international migration, international students are a special group with a temporary resident permit. Their mobility and their decision either to stay in host countries or return to their home countries after graduation can be analyzed according to a push-pull model, involving factors such as human capital, career development, affordability, social mobility, global market competition, quality of HE provision and services, and government policies in both home and host countries (Findlay 2011; Robertson 2011; Shen 2009; Wiers-Jenssen 2008; Xiang and Shen 2009). Despite differences in the terms and theories used, scholars share a more or less common belief that international student mobility and migration is a rational choice made by individuals as bearers of human capital (Raghuram 2013). It is too simple to view international students from the same country as a homogeneous group in terms of their motivation for studying abroad and their choice of either staying or returning to their home countries after the completion of their studies.

Beyond pull-push factors, the decisions might also have to do with the students’ social lives and personal experiences in host countries. In this regard, many scholars discuss the multiple roles that international students play in host societies, including as members of families, temporary workers in local markets, participants in church activities and volunteers in local community organizations (King and Raghuram 2013; Mosneaga and Winther 2013; Neilson 2009). Students’ choice about staying or going home is also influenced by migration policies, which may vary greatly across host countries (BIS 2013; Sovic and Blythman 2013). For instance, Hawthorne (2012:417) talks of a “two-step migration” of international students as “an integral part of transnational migration systems, which undergird skilled labor circulation in a burgeoning global knowledge economy.” As for national governments in host countries, we can see “the increasing incidence of national programs for student recruitments with a special view towards long-term or permanent settlement. ”

From the perspective of global diaspora, the heterogeneity of international students can be understood in terms of the variation in their contacts and connections with and social impact on local communities, including their coethnic groups in host societies. In this regard, the term “diaspora” is relevant. This refers to a group of people (e.g., Jews or Armenians) who have had to leave their historic homeland and live in other countries. In the era of globalization, as the growing mobility of people across national boundaries results in the growth of immigrant populations, the term “diaspora” has become increasing popular and harder to define. Emphasizing the sharing of common features and characteristics such as country of origin and collective identity, Cohen (2008: 18) divides global diasporas into five types: victim (Jews, Africans), labor (Indians), trade (Chinese), culture (the Caribbean) and imperial (British).

Broadening the definition ofdiaspora, furthermore, there is an increasing emphasis on hybridity, global flows (of people, knowledge and finance), transnational identities, and differences within diasporas (in terms of gender and class) (Dufoix, 2008: 22-34). For instance, “knowledge diaspora” or similar terms (e.g., “diaspora of the highly skilled,” “migrants of talents” and overseas professionals) have frequently been used by international organizations (e.g., the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration, the World Bank) and national governments of sending countries such as China and India for the purpose of promoting return migration and in order to make better use of knowledge diasporas (Xiang 2005; Yang and Qiu 2010). However, the emphasis has been on transnational networks, and little is known about the links and contributions of knowledge diasporas to coethnic communities. Can international students be inserted into the category of knowledge diaspora, given that the latter refers by definition to those who have completed their degrees and hold professional posts in host countries (Xiang 2005: 6)? The situation of international students is more complicated in terms of interconnections with and consequences for local communities than that of knowledge diasporas in host countries owing to uncertainty about their future. In the case of Indian students, Kumar et al. (2009) distinguish between three groups: (1) those who “extend their stay in the host country and join the workforce in order to compensate for their dissatisfaction about the quality of education”; (2) those who “stay and work at least for a couple of years in order to repay their heavy education loans”; and (3) those who “use the student visa to migrate and later on settle in the destination countries as it is an easy way to acquire permanent residence. ”

International students, like other immigrants, need to establish and maintain a social network for their communication and interaction with other cultural groups both on campus and in the wider community. Tian and Lowe (2010: 291-304) identify four types of social networking by Chinese students: (1) separation/marginalization (“a very restricted social network of a small number of Chinese students”); (2) integration/separa- tion (“a Chinese social network, though generally remaining open to the possibility of friendships outside this network”); (3) integration/identity retention (“aim[ing] to participate closely in the host society[and] maintain [ing] close friendships with other Chinese”); and (4) integration/assimila- tion (“extend[ing] their social network with British people, commonly diminishing their association with other Chinese”). Looking beyond campus, Gao (2016) offers valuable observations about how Chinese students engage with the local Chinese community in Australia by way of part-time employment and entrepreneurial activities in order to develop their knowledge, experience and skills to the mutual benefit of both the students and the local Chinese community. Along the same lines, Su (2013) suggests that experience involving part-time employment in Chinese restaurants or voluntary work in local communities is helpful for students “planning to work in the UK after their study,” enabling them to learn “how to handle working relationships with colleagues of different cultures” (Su 2013: 237).

By bringing together global diaspora and social networking perspectives, the connections and interaction between international students and coethnic groups can be understood as not only a new dynamic in diasporic communities but a way of establishing and developing the students’ identities in host countries. Recounting the history of Chinese communities in the UK, Benton and Gomez (2011: 47-48) suggest that Chinese students form a substantial minority of the country’s Chinese population and often take up part-time jobs in the ethnic enclave. They remind us of the differences between ethnic Chinese from current or former British colonies, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese. These differences can be seen from various angles, including connections with local Chinese business, lifestyles and relations with the Chinese embassy. Students from mainland China and their dependents “retain the liu xue sheng label, which denotes a fixed social identity separate from that of ‘overseas Chinese’, an identity they tend to look down on and reject” (Benton and Gomez 2011: 47-48).

Having reviewed relevant literature, the following research gaps can be identified. First, the links between international students and local communities are unclear, although they are important for international students’ understanding of and interaction with the host society, and for researchers’ understanding of the diversity of international students regarding the decision to migrate and attitudes to integration. Second, there are the students’ connections with coethnic groups and their impact on the coethnic community. The ethnic links with the local community can help us understand whether international students are part ofa global diaspora and in what ways they differ from their coethnics. I am also interested in the mechanisms that international students use to maintain contact with coethnics and other groups in the host society. I address these questions in the rest of this chapter.

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