Budding opportunities in China are luring an increasing number of those who studied abroad back to the country for rewarding careers
Attracted by the government’s preferential policies and the rapidly growing domestic economy, millions of students abroad are rushing back to China in what is described as a “returning tide” in stark contrast with the “going abroad craze” of decades ago.
A new high was seen in 2017, when nearly half a million overseas students returned to the country for work.
Overall, four in five Chinese who have finished studying overseas in the past 40 years — most of them in the past six years — haven chosen to get on with their pursuit back in China, and the number is growing.
The figure since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012 is more than 2.3 million, or more than 70 percent of the total since 1978, according to statistics released in April by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.
Luo Ranran is among them. Luo, who graduated from China Agricultural University in 2014, went to get a master’s degree in food science at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, one of the top schools in the world in that field.
“After half a year of internship in Amsterdam, I felt little space for selfimprovement and low cultural identity in a European country, so I decided to come back,” Luo says, adding that most of her friends made the same decision.
The 26-year-old says most Chinese students she knows in Europe have started working in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
“It’s hard to find a job in European countries, even though the food industry there is more advanced. Even if we do find some, the payment and career path are not worth staying so far from home,” she says.
Family, friends and cultural recognition in China are other factors pulling them back, in addition to the country’s abundant potential and strong economic growth momentum.
Luo now works in a foreign consulting company in Shanghai as a sensory analyst, evaluating consumer products by applying principles to the use of human senses. Her company has connections with Dutch clients, which makes her experience abroad a plus.
She says that when students with a food science major overseas look for a job back in China, private enterprises such as Hangzhou Wahaha Group are usually the first choice, along with international companies such as Unilever and P&G.
The number of students returning to China has increased dramatically since 2000, from fewer than 10,000 in 2000 to more than 400,000 in 2016, according to the 2017 China’s Overseas Study Development Trends Report by Education Online China.
With both the annual increase in the number of people leaving the country and the number of returnees, the gap has gradually narrowed. The ratio of those leaving to those returning decreased from more than 3:1 in 2006 to less than 1.3:1 in 2016, thanks to China’s efforts to attract overseas talent, says Ren Lei, managing editor of China Education Online, known as EOL.
Programs such as the Thousand Talents Plan, as well as the Made in China 2015 strategy and promotion of mass entrepreneurship and innovation, are targeting elite overseas talent willing to return and launch startups or businesses. Research subsidies ranging from 1 million to 3 million yuan are offered by the central government, depending on the program’s level and quality.
Chen Yangping, who is from Hong Kong, and his fiancee, from Guangdong province, settled in Guangzhou after getting doctoral degrees in the United States last year.
Chen says South China Normal University promised initial funding of 150,000 yuan for research and that the funds could be used as he wished for work related to the
“After half a year of internship in Amsterdam, I felt little space for selfimprovement and low cultural identity in a European country, so I decided to come back.” LUO RANRAN a China Agricultural University graduate who went to get a master’s degree in food science at Wageningen University in the Netherlands
beginning phase of the project. “Although it’s not as much as that for science and engineering majors, which can reach millions, it’s quite high for talent in music and arts and rare in the US,” he says.
Chen, now an associate research faculty member at the school of music at SCNU, was an associate instructor of music at the University of California, San Diego before he came back in November. Faced with such choices as pursuing post-PhD work in the United States or teaching in the US, Hong Kong or Guangzhou, he chose the last one and joined the SCNU Academic Fellowship, a project aimed at overseas talent. According to Chen, more than 20 fellows entered SCNU as part of the project.
“As a cultural center in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao and an international city, Guangzhou attracts us,” Chen says. “The president of the school, Yang Tianjun, believes that I’m capable of developing there with a long-term strategy with my study background and teaching experience abroad.”
Chen got married in February, and his wife, a pianist who earned a doctoral degree in the US, is considering joining SCNU, too.
Ren, of EOL, says that although few returnees match the elite program requirements, when settling, especially in second-tier cities or cities in western and central China, they are granted privilege for getting residency and given entrepreneurial support.
“After staying abroad for years, however, students are usually not familiar with the policies and might miss the advantages,” Ren says, adding that students should keep themselves updated.
Among Ren’s major tasks is informing young people around the country who prepare to study abroad on trends and policies.
Such information as well as timely updates are available at the websites of the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange, the Ministry of Education, the China Scholarship Council and EOL.
“A new wave of ‘returning tide’ has emerged, as China’s economic and social development has been rapid. The development prospects of various industries are bright, and the living standards of various cities have been continuously improved, which has made many overseas students more determined to return,” Ren says.
In a survey conducted on April 26 at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Shanghai, 100 percent of the students interested in going abroad said they would come back after studying.
About 130 students and parents took the survey, and 60 percent said they believed they could benefit from the better education provided by Western universities, while one-third said they only wanted to have a look at the world and get some overseas experience, according to the survey, which was conducted by EOL.
Meanwhile, with the increasing number of returned overseas students, the title “sea turtle”, meant as praise for returnees, is being replaced by “seaweed”, which is close to the Chinese pronunciation of “returnees waiting for jobs”, says Chen Zhiwen, chief editor of China Education Online, adding that the return of people to China for future development after studying abroad has become the norm.
“However, salaries for returnees can hardly meet their expectations,” Chen says.
Zheng Zijie just signed a contract with a company in Hong Kong that offers monthly salary of about 10,000 yuan. It’s not a big difference compared with the average in Beijing, but compared with the spending of one year at the University of Liverpool, which can total about 500,000 yuan, Zheng feels pressure.
“Too many returnees are looking for jobs, and the competition is tough,” says Zheng, who is from Guangdong province and finds Hong Kong to be a good destination, since, for one, it’s close to home.
‘Harder to stay abroad’
Zheng tried to stay in the UK after graduation, but few companies responded to her applications, and the high cost of living there forced her to give up. She spent about two months looking for jobs, and described the experience as hard.
Zhang Chao, founder of niuschool.com, an online and offline agency for studying abroad, says: “When it comes to career development after graduation, it’s harder to stay abroad now, as the immigration policies are tightening, especially in the UK and the US. That’s also a main reason why graduates choose to return to China.
“If a student graduated from a top university overseas, or has a master’s degree, it becomes easier to find a good job back in China. Otherwise, it can be tough,” Zhang says.
Zhang, who has worked in the industry for nearly 20 years, has witnessed the changes that students who want to go abroad and their families undergo.
Engineering, arts and architecture are increasingly popular majors, while business and management studies used to be hot. “Students’ interests are better respected,” says Zhang, adding that many parents themselves have received a higher education and therefore have a clearer idea of long-term goals.
Graduates majoring in engineering or financial mathematics, and those with specialized skills, have better chances of finding satisfying jobs back in China, but not those who major in management or business as a broad concept, according to Zhang.
There is much competition to enter top universities in China because of the huge number of high school students entering college each year — the number was 9.4 million last year — and the limited advanced educational resources.
“If they look to universities all around the world, they get more choices,” Zhang says.
There are nearly 2,600 universities and colleges in China, 116 of which are so-called Project 211 institutions that meet certain scientific, technical and human resource standards and offer advanced degree programs, according to the Ministry of Education.
“Parents nowadays have clearer minds when sending their kids abroad for study. They are no longer just crazy about foreign things ... like 10 years ago, but are now attracted by the education quality and self-development potential,” Zhang says.
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Chinese students walk on the campus of an Australian university. More and more young Chinese people are returning to China for work after studying abroad.
A returnee student talks with a recruiter at the 16th Conference on International Exchange of Professionals in Shenzhen in April.
Recruiters interview returned job seekers at a job fair in Shenzhen.
Job seekers who have graduated from overseas universities look at information at a job fair in Shenzhen.