The 'serving China' discourse in contemporary China

For overseas students in higher education thinking ahead towards the end of their studies, the decision to stay in the host society, return to the home society, go to a third country, or to settle into another (probably transnational) pattern of mobility, is one of great personal significance. Professional (career progression), societal (culture, ways of life, level of discrimination) and personal (family) factors combine to influence such decision-making (Alberts & Hazen, 2005), with the macro-level structural aspects interacting with individual considerations and preferences fluidly, leading to evaluations of the situation that change over time (Hazen & Alberts, 2006). These factors make up a situational dynamic full of uncertainties that make the decision much more complex than merely rational economic calculations of maximising return (Mosneaga & Winther, 2013).

While it is obvious that these complex factors relating to the situational dynamics of host societies shape overseas students' decisions to stay or to go after graduation, the incentives and policies of home societies also play a key part. Specifically in the case of Chinese overseas migrants, there is a long history, stretching back to the early 20th century, of various Chinese governments attempting to tap into the sense of patriotic duty of overseas Chinese and to call for their return to China to contribute towards the dominant political objective of the time (Wang, 2000, p. 79). The 'serving China' discourse can be considered to be the contemporary version of this 'call of duty', and within the context of this discourse, I will proceed to discuss the career plans of Chinese students in Japan.

Chinese students abroad play a particular role in the Chinese state's attempt to mobilise overseas Chinese, especially the highly skilled, well-educated ones, to 'serve China'. They are expected to contribute to China's national strength and development while they are outside China, and are continually considered part of the Chinese economy and society (Nyiri, 2001, p. 638).

Meanwhile, with regard to Chinese students' life after graduation, the Chinese official discourse had been emphasising the importance of Chinese overseas graduates to return to China to serve. Deng Xiaoping's remarks during his Southern Tour in 1992 - '(I) hope everyone who is studying abroad will come back, regardless of the past political stance ... this policy must remain unchanged' and 'Tell them that it's best to return to China to contribute ... (They) must love our country and help our country develop' (Cheng, 1999b, pp. 42-43) - are good illustrations of this position. Soon after, the policy directive of 'supporting study abroad, encouraging return to China, ensuring freedom of movement' (Third Plenary Session of the Fourteenth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, 1993) was established. While the official analysis saw it as 'an important step towards implementing Deng Xiaoping's Southern Tour speech' (Cheng, 1999b, p. 43), this can also be interpreted as a shift in emphasis in the official discourse, from 'returning to serve' (huiguo fuwu) to 'serving China (while abroad)' (weiguo fuwu) (Nyiri, 2001, p. 637). This arguably 'separate(s) the nation-state from the fixed territory ... (and) greatly expands the horizons and spaces of the new immigrants' (Liu, H., 2005, p. 303) in terms of how they can 'serve China'. But such an 'expansion of horizons' operates on the assumption that overseas students are all patriots who are keen on 'serving China', and makes up a tautological argument with how going abroad (as interpreted by the official discourse) 'has turned from treacherous, to tolerated but ideologically suspect, to patriotic' (Nyiri, 2001, p. 637). At the same time, this policy directive, when put in more concrete terms, also functions as a catchall that conceptually subsumes under the 'serving China' banner all constructive activities in which Chinese overseas migrants engage. The policy document entitled 'A Number of Opinions on Encouraging Overseas Students to Provide China with Many Different Forms of Service', which encourages Chinese students abroad to hold academic positions in China, to introduce foreign capital into Chinese enterprises and to work with Chinese institutions to conduct research (China Scholars Abroad, 2001), is a good illustration of this.

Further, while the Chinese government have launched or supported a number of initiatives to encourage the long-term return of Chinese graduates overseas to return to China to work or to set up businesses (Xiang, 2003, pp. 30-31), academic and business exchange activities that do not necessarily involve long-term return to China have also been promoted. In 1996, the 'Spring-Light Plan' (chunhui jihua) was launched to attract Chinese overseas students to engage in short-term academic activities in China (Cao, 2008, p. 336; Xiang, 2003, p. 31). Meanwhile, in the sphere of business and investment, preferential treatment was offered to overseas Chinese capital investment in Mainland China compared to normal foreign direct investment before 1995, and local-level incentives in areas such as tax, residence, import duties and so on were given to overseas Chinese who returned to invest or to set up businesses in China (Zhuang, 2013, p. 39). Other official initiatives to lure overseas Chinese academic talents back to China to conduct research include the Chang Jiang (Cheung Kong) Scholars Programme, and the One Hundred, One Thousand, and Ten Thousands Programmes, to name but a few (Le Bail & Shen, 2008, p. 16; Zweig, Chung, & Vanhonacker, 2006, p. 453).

Despite this shift in direction of the official policy towards encouraging Chinese migrants to 'serve China' without necessarily physically returning to China, the non-return of Chinese migrants was sometimes still portrayed as a problem by the official discourse. A chapter (Cheng, 1999a), written by a researcher of the official body of Overseas Chinese History Research Institute, led by The Association of Chinese Overseas Returnees (an official organisation under the ruling Chinese Communist Party), spelled out the conundrum of the apparent non-return of Chinese migrants abroad and the negative effects it has to China's development. The latest generation of Chinese students abroad were said to be influenced by 'Western individualism and liberalism', which led them to think that 'the right of personal choice is above everything else, and national interest is not a reason for personal sacrifice' (Cheng, 1999a, pp. 63-64). Thus 'traditional patriotism has lost its appeal to this generation of Chinese students abroad' ibid.). But other studies have shown that, the tendency to embrace personal choice is not limited to those who went abroad and were allegedly influenced by 'Western' thoughts. Specifically in the context of jobs and careers, since the reform and opening policies in the early 1980s, which guided China away from a traditional socialist planned economy, university graduates were no longer allocated jobs by the state, and were instead allowed to pursue a career in either the public or the private sector as an individual. The result of this has been the formation of a new subjectivity that embodies the neoliberal, selfenterprising ethos (Hoffman, 2006, p. 552). In other words, hard work, networking, job-switching and other strategies to become successful in the budding market economy began to take hold as viable and desirable ways to move ahead in life for Chinese individuals (Yan, 2010, p. 502).

Cheng (1999a) was ultimately optimistic in his outlook regarding the eventual return of Chinese students and migrants abroad, stating that 'as the mother country (muguo) of these overseas students, China has the natural advantage in attracting them to return in terms of national psychology, cultural origins and filial relationships' (p. 72), and that

'racial differences and obstacles to cultural adaptation (of Chinese students to Western societies) will lead to most overseas Chinese students eventually returning to the mother country (zuguo)' (Cheng, 1999c, p. 7). While Cheng's terminologies were loose, his main argument was clear: the cultural ties that Chinese students overseas had with China would be a significant pull factor to lure them back to China to work. Similarly, Hong Liu (2005) argues that xinyimin (new migrants), who left China after the launch of the reform and opening policies (p. 293; Barabantseva, 2005, p. 15), by virtue of being born and raised in China and having maintained close family ties with mainland China, were keen to keep tabs on Chinese affairs while abroad and may belong to 'an imagined community that could be potentially bound by a shared sense of nationalism' (Liu, H., 2005, p. 305). A shared sense of nationalism would indeed be complementary and supportive to the 'serving China' discourse, which is not in itself contradictory to the pursuit of individual career success, as Lisa Hoffman (2006) found with university graduates from China who displayed both a firm belief in developing their own careers and their professional selves and a strong commitment to contribute to the strength of China (pp. 560-562).

Indeed, the vast majority of my informants - Chinese students in high-ranking universities in Japan - were born and raised in China and had family ties back in China. The fact that I met many of them through mailing lists of Chinese student associations of different universities in Japan, or through activities organised by these associations, as well as how they referred to themselves during our conversations, further demonstrated their clear identities as Chinese. But this did not mean their decisions relating to their career plans, and why they had made such plans, were driven by patriotism or cultural ties with China per se; their rationale were overwhelmingly based on considerations for their own career development. Most of my informants did not see their education and training in Japan as primarily a means to contribute to China as a collective entity, and China, just like Japan, would be an arena where they could potentially achieve personal career success.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >