China Daily European Weekly - - Front Page - By YAN DONGJIE yan­dongjie@chi­

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.

Coun­try’s efforts

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, 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.

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