(Not) Returning Tibet: Identity, Morality, and Future Projectivity among Tibetan and Han Mobile Youth in China

Dr Miaoyan  Yang3, Dr James  Leibold4

3Sociology Department, School of Sociology and Anthropology, Xiamen University, , China, 4Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy, La Trobe University, , Australia

Borrowing the concepts of identity, morality and future projectivity from cultural sociology, this article compares the ways Tibetan and Han youth with Tibet House Registration from a state-run dislocated boarding school program imagine their futures at different temporal points. With data collected from a longitudinal study between 2011 and 2018, this article points to two distinctive patterns of imagined futures between these Tibetan and Han Mobile Youth — although both groups embraced the idea of boarding schools in the interior cities as the start point of a bright future, Tibetan youth overwhelmingly connected their long-term futures with the Tibet land while Han youth tie theirs with the interior lands. The imagined futures projected their constantly constructed moral selves, ethnic identities and aspirational lifestyles in the short and long term. For Tibetan youth, returning Tibet serves to fulfill goals of constructing a better Tibet, taking up family responsibilities, and achieving upward social mobility. For Han youth, not returning Tibet predicts a return to normality, a process of destigmatisiation, and a free lifestyle. This study sheds light on the state schooling, ethnic politics and political socialization in China’s cultural and geographic peripheries.


Miaoyan Yang is an associate professor from Sociology Department, School of Sociology and Anthropology, Xiamen University. Her recent publication “Learning to be safe citizens: state-run boarding schools and the dynamics of Tibetan identity” is in Citizenship Studies.

James Leibold has research expertise on the politics of ethnicity, race and national identity in modern Chinese history and society, and is currently engaged in research on ethnic policy-making and ethnic conflict in contemporary China with a particular focus on the restive Western frontier and its Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic minorities. He is the author and co-editor of four books and over twenty-five peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and a frequent contributor to the international media on these topics.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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