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China Economy Draws More Students Back From Abroad

Monday,Mar 06, 2017

From: The Wall Street Journal


Beijing trumpets return of “sea turtles,” the thousands of students who left China to study abroad, but many may not have much choice


BEIJING: In recent years, Chinese students have increasingly opted out of the education system at home and gone abroad. Now, as China is eager to point out, a greater share of them are also coming back.

“A hundred rivers eventually return to the sea, it’s the right time to build a dream together” read a recent headline in the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily, which declared the number of returning students to be the largest in history.

But while the flood of haigui, or sea turtles, as they are known in Chinese, is a source of pride, it may not be patriotism or even economic opportunity driving the trend, but more practical matters like visas. And not everyone is joining in.

A rise in incomes and frustration with China’s ultracompetitive education system produced a study-abroad fervor of historic proportions. The figure reached over half a million in 2015, more than 13 times the level in 2000, according to official statistics.

In recent years, around 80% of such students have returned home, compared with about a third in 2006, according to the Education Ministry.

One reason is that today’s crop skews more heavily undergraduate. In the past, students more typically were studying for doctorates or similarly advanced degrees that would have made landing a job abroad easier.

There also are legal factors. In the U.S.—which polls show is the most popular destination for Chinese students—demand for H-1B skilled-worker visas has vastly outstripped supply for years, even for those with job offers.

Those who don’t get a visa have to seek other options, such as applying to another degree program, or go home.

China also has tried to entice students back by establishing industrial parks aimed at incubating startups led by returnees. While in 2000 China was home to around 50 such parks, today there are more than 300, though returnees cite bureaucratic challenges in accessing such resources.

Beijing and other cities also dangle the offer of a coveted local residence permit, which confers a host of social benefits, for those with advanced degrees from overseas.

A strong startup culture has taken hold in recent years, spurred in part by larger-than-life internet entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group Holding.

“China offers a lot of high-tech opportunities—like mobile internet, science and entrepreneurship—so it seems the opportunities, if not equal, can be even better than in the United States,” said Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) think tank, and vice chairman of the China Western Returned Scholars Association.

Feng Feng, 31 years old, returned with a master’s degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 to found an education-consulting company in Beijing.

Most of her Chinese friends in the U.S. also returned home, she said. “It’s easier to get a job in China,” she said.

According to a 2016 survey by Mr. Wang’s think tank, around three-quarters of returnees make at least 5,000 yuan ($730) a month, with a quarter making more than 10,000 yuan.

That beats the average monthly salary for domestic college graduates half a year after leaving school of 3,487 yuan, according to government statistics.

But salaries are generally higher in the West, and the cost of a foreign education is a lot to recoup.

With more overseas graduates returning and looking for work, competition has stiffened. These days, job-hunting haigui down on their luck are also known as haidai, or seaweed. And there are other factors to consider.

Dezhi Fang, a 19-year-old junior at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said that between government incentives and business opportunities, the climate for returnees has greatly improved.

But Mr. Fang, who is studying computer science, said that in the U.S. he has access to sources of research funding he wouldn’t be able to tap in China, and that China’s internet censorship is also a deterrent. “All my networks, both in academia and industry, are in the U.S.,” he said.

He plans to stay after graduation to pursue either a doctorate or a job in the tech industry. Most of his Chinese friends also want to stay, he said.

“The U.S. is still the greatest place for doing cutting-edge research,” he said.

Chinese media last week trumpeted how 94-year-old Nobel laureate Chen Ning Yang and Turing Award winner Andrew Yao, 70, recently gave up their U.S. passports to take up Chinese citizenship again and join the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Back in Beijing, Ms. Feng, whose company helps advise Chinese firms on how to build education partnerships in the U.S., said she partly let her palate decide: “I don’t like food in the U.S.—too many sweet things and too much cheese.”(By Te-Ping Chen)


From The Wall Street Journal,2017-3-1



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