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Active participants but confused minds: university students’ perceptions of citizenship learning experiences in Chinese higher education

Chong Zhang (School of Public Administration, Zhejiang University of Technology, Hangzhou, China)

Social Transformations in Chinese Societies

ISSN: 1871-2673

Article publication date: 14 March 2023

Issue publication date: 20 November 2023




There is widespread debate about the nationalistic top-down approach of citizenship education. By using the notion of cultural citizenship as a useful theoretical lens, citizenship education research tends to focus on the process of subjectivity construction among students’ citizenship learning process. The Communist Party of China plays a dominant role in cultivating citizens in the form of ideological and political education (IaPE) in Chinese universities. The research problem thus focuses on the dynamics and complexity of how Chinese university students construct their subjectivities regarding citizenship learning through IaPE. The main purpose of the study is to provide some research directions for understanding students’ citizenship learning today.


With the case study of one university in China and interview data from 25 students, this paper examines the ways in which students understand and respond to dominant discourses.


The findings revealed there is a deficit of citizenship learning in IaPE, and students felt ideologically pressurized. This study suggests students’ complex subjectivities of active participants but confused minds as a phenomenon in Chinese higher education, in which they must involve in IaPE for personal academic and career development, while they adopted covert strategies for self-conscious citizenship learning expectations. These strategies took the form ranging from obediently completing basic curriculum requirements and distancing away by studying abroad, to actively searching for learning opportunities from other courses and media society.


This paper contributes to citizenship education research by recognizing the complexities of how subjectivities are formed in formal university settings.



The authors alone are responsible for the content and writing of this article.

Funding: This work is supported by Soft Science Project from Zhejiang Province Science and Technology Plan Project under Grant [KYY-ZX-20210216].


Zhang, C. (2023), "Active participants but confused minds: university students’ perceptions of citizenship learning experiences in Chinese higher education", Social Transformations in Chinese Societies, Vol. 19 No. 2, pp. 84-100.



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