State policies regarding the internationalization of higher education (IHE) in China have undergone significant shifts between 1949 and 2019. This paper advances the proposition that these shifts in policies pertaining to IHE can be understood as part of a process of ongoing Chinese state formation in relation to national and global developments and does so by examining the history of IHE policy and policy changes between 1949 and 2019 to demonstrate this possibility. We consider three specific periods to make this case, including (1) the period of Marxist-Leninist socialist nationalism, patriotism and proletarian internationalism and the early engagements of IHE (1949-1976); (2) neoliberal globalization and opening-up: a return to the international stage and further IHE (1977-2002); and finally, (3) state developmentalism and the era of globally engaged higher education (HE) (2003-2019). In conclusion, the current implications of a neoliberal (capitalist) globalization are discussed in terms of real and potential implications for Chinese state formation, Chinese HE and society. The paper aims to investigate the historical underpinnings and formation of international HE in China and contribute to the significant gap in our current literature regarding IHE in China as a socio-historical phenomenon. It not only offers a detailed documentation of how policy on IHE has evolved and shifted in the context of significant changes in political and economic directions in China but also teases out influences of national concerns such as ideological and cultural considerations as well as neoliberal globalization.