Navigating Geoeducational Dilemmas: Chinese Student Migration in Singapore

In the COVID-19 pandemic’s wake, increasing numbers of students from China are eschewing Western destinations for Asian countries including Singapore. For these student migrants, Singapore occupies a unique geoeducational position as a cultural junction (jiaohuichu) or hub between China and the West. A portmanteau of geopolitics and education, the term geoeducational refers to the reciprocal effects of both, with geopolitics conceived broadly to include politics, geography and economics. Using ethnographic interviews and observations, this talk argues that the junctional role of Singapore, a Chinese-majority Southeast Asian city-state, helps Chinese student migrants navigate their geoeducational dilemmas. These dilemmas are conditioned by rising US‒China superpower competition amid economic stagnation in China and growing xenophobia in the West. Young people in China face massive unemployment and what they term involution (neijuan), or hypercompetition for diminishing gains, while Chinese student migrants in the West confront marginalization and racism. Meanwhile, Cold War-style paranoia is ratcheting up, with migrants falling under espionage suspicions on both sides of the Pacific. Under these conditions, many see Singapore as a safe liminal place from which they can pursue their diverse goals of security, flexibility, freedom, cultural belonging and filial reciprocity ‒ either by springboarding to the West, returning to China or remaining in Singapore. Drawing from feminist geopolitics, this talk theorizes the geoeducational to illuminate tectonic shifts in global student migration patterns. It investigates the implications of these shifts for university rankings and financing, brain drain and brain gain, demographic change and state legitimacy in a time of eroding meritocracy.

Zachary Howlett is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale-NUS College at the National University of Singapore. Dr Howlett researches meritocracy and mobility in China and Chinese diasporas. He is the author of Meritocracy and Its Discontents: Anxiety and the National College Entrance Exam in China (Cornell University Press, 2021).