Beyond the Great Wall: New Expatriates and New Media in China

Mai, Fan, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Press, Andrea, Department of Media Studies, University of Virginia

In response to China’s unprecedented economic boom and demand for international talent, Westerners from developed countries have streamed into China, particularly after the 2008 Beijing Olympics. To understand the experience of these new arrivals, I conducted in-depth interviews with sixty-eight international migrants. Based on the interviews, I found that many of these new international migrants distinguish themselves from “corporate-made expatriates.” Compared to “corporate-made expatriates,” these “self-initiated expatriates” take pride in their independence and their ability to navigate in a foreign environment by themselves. At the same time, most respondents expressed a sense of alienation and contradiction in their China experience. They felt distant and isolated from the local Chinese communities and the host society. This tension between their desire to be cosmopolitan and the reality of living as segregated outsiders is heightened in their everyday struggle with the Chinese media environment.

This project provides a window to a bigger question: how do media fit into the operation of social boundaries? In the context of expatriates in China, media not only create important structural boundaries that shape everyday life experience, but they also play central roles in the mechanisms of boundary change. I have identified three important media practices that expatriates adopt, in varying degrees, to cross these boundaries: 1) Use of proxy services; 2) Adopting Chinese media platforms; 3) Creating their own media. For each media practice, I pay close attention to the way pre-existing boundaries are contested and transgressed while new social boundaries are constructed.

Overall, I found these media practices are effective in terms of bridging the gap between the World Wide Web and the Chinese media environment. Despite the existence of the Great Firewall of China, as members of “transnational elites,” expatriates transgress national borders to transport and reconstruct the media environment they were familiar with at home. However, the social boundaries between expatriates and the local Chinese remain in place despite the presence of means to bridge the language barrier and efforts made by individual expatriates.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Social Boundaries, Media Environment, Media Practices, Expatriates in China, International Migration, Expatriate Media
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