International Students in China: Who will reach this vast and strategic yet invisible group? – Part 2

Destinations in China

Though Beijing (17%) and Shanghai (14%) attracted the lion’s share of international students in 2016, there was a notable spread throughout the country.[i]

Reasons for coming

Due to a combination of diverse factors, China will continue to grow as a destination for international students. It has some of the world’s top universities,[ii] boasts a great diversity of institutions and programs, and is much cheaper than western destinations.[iii] Well over 800 colleges and universities in China accept international students,[iv] with many offering accessible undergraduate and postgraduate courses entirely in English.

Moreover, Chinese universities are gaining a reputation as attractive research environments.[v] An outward-facing international education strategy for 2020[vi] combined with massive investment (49,022 scholarships in 2016)[vii] has attracted many students. In China, international students account for only 0.9% of total higher education students, compared to over 20% in the UK and Australia, leaving significant capacity to welcome more foreign students.[viii]

Student diversity

Compared to many western contexts, the international student population in China seems more culturally diverse, so there is more potential for intercultural conflict. What is acceptable to one student may offend another. In addition, cultural naiveté makes it hard for students from culturally homogeneous societies to comprehend, accept and befriend the other.

It is widely assumed that all international students in China speak English. They do not. In fact, many international students, like the growing number from Central Asia, do not have functional English. Furthermore, even those who speak English cannot always understand one another. So, sometimes the best way to communicate is with limited Mandarin—the new lingua franca. Linguistic diversity means that ministry is not just in English. When an American Christian international student recently gathered over a dozen classmates and friends together for a Christmas party—from the USA, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, UK, Australia, Mongolia, Uruguay, Russia, and China—the conversation was entirely in Mandarin. Though the most effective ministry is of course in someone’s heart language, anyone—foreign or local—who can speak Mandarin can easily connect with vast numbers of non-English-speaking international students.

Religious diversity means international students include Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, and Baha’i. Amongst those identifying as Christians, one finds all affiliations and levels of commitment. Various cults also have an established presence, attracting lonely and stressed students.

All this precludes a “one size fits all” ministry model and demands creativity. Despite the challenges, international student ministry offers wonderful opportunities for gospel proclamation. With the control of family and home culture replaced with intriguing new freedom, students are asking, “What do I believe and why?”


[i]      忠建丰 (Zhong Jianfeng [Editor]) “2016年度我国来华留学生情况统计”(Statistics of International Students in China in 2016) by Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China  (published 1 March 2017, viewed 18 January 2018).

[ii]     Johan Nylander, in Forbes “China’s Top Universities Shine In Global Ranking” (published 28 April 2015, viewed 18 January 2018).

[iii]    “Overview of Study Abroad in China” by Study in China (viewed 18 January 2018).

[iv]    忠建丰 (Zhong Jianfeng [Editor]) “2016年度我国来华留学生情况统计.”

[v]     UNESCO, “Higher Education in Asia: Expanding Out, Expanding Up” (published 2014, viewed 18 January 2018).

[vi]    Beckie Smith, “China releases outward facing international education strategy to 2020”, The PIE News (published 19 August 2016, viewed 18 January 2018).

[vii]    忠建丰 (Zhong Jianfeng [Editor]) “2016年度我国来华留学生情况统计.”

[viii]   Project Atlas 2016 release (viewed 18 January 2018).


First published on the Mission Nexus website on 29 March 2018.

The views expressed in this blog post are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the GC network.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

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Phil Jones

Phil Jones (pseudonym) and his wife have been working amongst international students for over twelve years, both in their home country and for three years in China. They are becoming aware of the opportunities to reach the nations who have come to China.



Posted in Education, Mission, Prayer, Working together.

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