China's promise lures grads home

Students educated abroad find opportunity – and a lifestyle similar to what they had overseas.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
People walk through the financial district. ‘The way [Chinese] live and work is more westernized,’ says Chinese businesswoman Guo Yixin.

Dressed in a demure lace-frilled blouse and a sensible midcalf skirt, sipping a cup of Starbucks tea, Guo Yixin could be an ambitious young executive almost anywhere.

The fact that she is in Beijing, though, is testament to a trend that promises to transform Chinese business: Chinese students with foreign college degrees are coming home in ever greater numbers.

Some are drawn by the new opportunities that China's rapidly expanding economy is opening up to highly educated, internationally minded young people.

"This is where things are happening," says Ms. Guo.


Others find themselves with few alternatives to returning home, as countries such as the United States, Australia, and Britain tighten up immigration laws and make it harder for foreign students to stay on.

"I couldn't get permanent residence, so I decided to come back," explains Rao Monong, who had hoped to get a job as a reporter in Australia after finishing her journalism master's at the University of Sydney.

Either way, after 30 years of relentless brain-drain, more and more Chinese are becoming "sea turtles," as they are known here, choosing to come home when they are done with their studies. Some 44,000 came back in 2007, according to Education Ministry figures. Last year, that figure jumped to 108,000.

Fewer Chinese students going abroad

Since 1978, when Chinese students were first allowed to go abroad, about 1.3 million of them have done so. In the past, nearly three-quarters of them would stay away and find work outside China, but that proportion is now dropping.

Among those returning home after their studies are some scientific researchers tempted by special programs the Chinese government has set up to fund their work and pay them better salaries. Others have taken advantage of the Beijing muni­cipal government's offer of temporary accommodation, tax breaks on cars, and priority access to a prized city residence permit.

Most, though, are coming back simply because today there are enough jobs to match their skills.

"There are more foreign companies in China and more Chinese companies doing international business," says Zong Wa, head of the China Education Association for International Exchange, a group affiliated with the Education Ministry. "That creates more and more opportunities for people who have been abroad for a while," he says.

Most employers welcome them, says Jiang Lei, an executive with the Education International Cooperation Group, a company that helps students find university places abroad.

The firm noted in a recent survey that 77 percent of returnees found a job within three months of coming home, says Mr. Jiang, a much higher rate than for locally educated students.

"Their experience and education abroad makes them more tolerant of other values and they have learned the international rules of the game," Jiang adds. "That's their advantage."

The gap between the East and the West

China does not just offer jobs to new graduates. Increasingly, its cities offer the sort of lifestyle that students enjoyed abroad.

"The gap between the East and the West is getting smaller, so staying in the West is not as important for us as it used to be," says Ms. Monong. "Beijing and Shanghai are almost the same as big cities abroad."

"People have become more open, hierarchies are getting blurred, the way we live and work is more and more westernized," agrees Ms. Guo, making the decision to return home less dramatic.

Work may now be easier to find for foreign-educated job-seekers, but with so many coming home, competition means that salaries are not high, especially by Western standards.

"Students' salary demands are surprising; they have a quite rational attitude," says Jiang, who recalls a period not long ago when foreign-educated students could not find jobs partly because they held exaggerated views of their own market value.

"With more people coming back, employers do not value us as highly," says Cheng Yuan, who returned home last month with a master's in linguistics from the University of Arizona. "We are not supposed to expect too much."

Still, Jiang says his company's survey reveals that candidates educated abroad can generally expect to earn 10 percent more in an entry-level job than their locally educated counterparts, and that their prospects for rapid promotion are better.

Few come home for the money, though; no industry in China except banking offers anything approaching internationally competitive salaries to new graduates.

"I didn't move for the salary," explains Guo, who is in public relations. "China is a very huge market, full of dreams for young people. If you want to live a simple happy life, stay abroad – the lifestyle is easy and the work-life balance is good," she adds. "But if you really want to do something big, come back to China."

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