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More ‘sea turtles’ return but prefer foreign firms
2014-03-25
By Doug Young

New numbers from the Ministry of Education show a rising number of Chinese are returning home after studying abroad, reflecting the growing attraction of living and working in their native country.

As someone who has lived and worked in China for much of the last quarter century, this turnaround is quite remarkable and reflects the fact that China of today is in many ways a completely different country from the one that I remember in the 1980s.

One of the main magnets for returning students is modern cities like Shanghai, which can now boast career development opportunities and living conditions that are competitive with other global centers like New York, London and Tokyo.

But hidden in these more upbeat numbers is also the less positive reality that many returning students shun Chinese employers and prefer to work for big global names, which offer better working conditions and career development opportunities.

The latest Ministry of Education data showed the gap between people leaving China and those returning has narrowed sharply, with just 60,000 more people leaving last year to study abroad than those who returned.

Overall, some 414,000 Chinese went abroad to study last year, while 354,000 returned. Last year’s gap was half the size of 2012, when 130,000 more people left China than those who returned.

As a percentage, the number of leaving students was 17 percent higher than those returning last year, also an improvement from 2012 when 46 percent more students left than those who returned. As recently as 2003 when returning wasn’t a very attractive option, the number of leaving students outnumbered returnees by nearly 6 to 1.

The Ministry of Education and government leaders are obviously pleased by the trend, and no doubt look forward to a day when the number of returning students outpaces those leaving. That would mark an official end to a “brain drain” that dates all the way back to the 1980s when large numbers of students first started going abroad.

I remember in August 1989 taking a CAAC flight from Beijing to New York, which was filled with such students heading for study in the US.

Back in those days it was much more difficult for Chinese to study abroad, both because it was very hard to get passports and visas and also because nearly all students had to get full scholarships since most had very little money.

I remember the atmosphere on that plane, which was both festive and also just slightly sad. On one hand, most of those students knew they were starting a new adventure in a place whose economy and job opportunities were far better than those in China at that time.

But at the same time, nearly all of them had no intention of returning to China when they finished their studies, meaning most realized they would be leaving behind all the friends and familiar places forever.

The situation was similar in Taiwan in the 1960s and 70s, when students often left home with the knowledge they would never return. But like the mainland, Taiwan’s economy began to improve dramatically in the 1980s, prompting many students to consider returning home.

Sea turtles return

For China, the change has come much more recently. I remember attending a special job fair for returning students, known locally as hai gui, in Guangzhou in 2002 when I was working as a Hong Kong-based reporter for Reuters.

That event felt slightly surreal and more like a propaganda exercise, since the number of exhibitors was far higher than the overseas students in attendance.

Fast forward just over a decade, when these kinds of artificial job fairs have largely disappeared, and the real job market is far more attractive for people considering a return home. But even if the number of returning students soon surpasses those leaving, Chinese companies still have a long way to go to attract their fair share of the returnees.

That reality was on embarrassing display earlier this month, when 1,000 workers at an IBM factory in Shenzhen went on strike after learning they would be transferred to local PC giant Lenovo as part of an M&A deal.

In the end, half of the workers quit, even though both IBM and Lenovo promised that salaries and other benefits wouldn’t be cut under the transfer.

Lenovo is actually considered one of China’s leading global companies and one of its best employers, often offering Western-style benefits, hours and work environment.

But the fact that so many IBM workers left rather than work for the Chinese company underscores just how far local employers still have to go before they will become the real magnet drawing home the growing tide of hai gui.

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