Political identities of Chinese international students: Patterns and change in transnational space

Zhipeng Gao
Published Online:
12 May 2021
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Amid the ongoing international tensions surrounding China, Chinese international students (CISs) in Western countries have become targets of political suspicion. Against discriminatory voices that make sweeping generalisations about CISs, this research argues that their political identities are in fact diverse and malleable. Using theories of postmodernism and transnationalism, this study applies thematic analysis and discourse analysis to interviews with 28 CISs, yielding four major findings. First, it identifies three distinct patterns of political identity: Chinese nationalists who endorse conservative politics in the West; advocates of liberal democracy; and transnational neoliberals who avoid political participation. Second, it argues that CISs undergo identity changes depending on a range of individual and social characteristics. Among these characteristics, third, it highlights the role of socioeconomic status in shaping the political identities of CISs, and in so doing, reflects on the inadequacy of race and nationality as identity markers. Fourth, it suggests that the political identities of CISs are transnationally hinged on both China and the host countries. On the practical front, the study may inform professions working with CISs such as education and policymaking. Theoretically, it suggests that the political identities of CISs are heterogenous, impressionable and transnationally contingent.

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