School choice in urban China: educational desires and life-packages between the state and the market

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper, not in proceeding


Questions around school choice have attracted growing attention among educational scholars worldwide, and there is by now a burgeoning body of literature that links school choice to (i) the marketization and commercialization in education, (ii) new modes of governance in education, and (iii) individualized patterns of life-planning among families who see themselves increasingly exposed to global competition. My paper explores these dynamics by looking at the case of private schools in urban China, where processes of neoliberalization and what governmentality research has called 'responsibilization' go hand in hand with refined mechanisms of authoritarian control. By taking into account both the supply and demand side of the Chinese educational market, I will discuss the various strategies and ideological underpinnings that are tied to the discourse of 'choice' in education.

The paper is based on, firstly, a critical analysis of documents such as laws, regulations and public/academic debates regarding 'school choice' in China. Secondly, I draw on findings from my fieldwork conducted between 2011 and 2014 in three different localities in China, which constitute examples of a state-controlled (Beijing), consumer-driven (Zhejiang Province), and necessity-driven (Kunming) educational market. Besides school visits and class observations, interviews were conducted with educational scholars, school founders and principals, teachers, local government officials, and lobbyists for private schools. The data show how the issue of 'school choice', although originating in globally circulating ideas about de-/re-regulating education, goes through processes of local adaptation and appropriation once it enters the Chinese context(s). The case thus presents an example of how seemingly individual choices are deeply political: they are intermeshed with local, national and possibly global governance structures and pressures as much as they are embedded in value systems that are framed by sociopolitical and economic constraints and potentials. The paper is an outcome of my research project "Cash cow, civil space or cooptation: private schools in urban China" and has received generous funding from the Swedish foundation Riksbankens Jubileumsfond.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Educational Sciences


  • educational privatisation, educational marketisation, educational consumption, school choice, China, private schools
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Publication categoryResearch
Event43rd Annual Congress of the Nordic Educational Research Association (NERA): Marketisation and Differentiation in Education - Gothenburg
Duration: 2015 Mar 4 → …


Conference43rd Annual Congress of the Nordic Educational Research Association (NERA): Marketisation and Differentiation in Education
Period2015/03/04 → …

Related projects

Barbara Schulte


Project: ResearchIndividual research project, Interdisciplinary research

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