How foreign shores lost their lustre

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am


Many Chinese who have attended graduate school and worked in the West are moving back to their homeland to start up their own enterprises or serve international companies. They are commonly called haigui, literally 'sea turtles', or overseas returnees.

Some from the United States carry with them the memories of the September 11 terrorist attacks 10 years ago, as well as a deeper and more complex understanding of their former host country.

Eugene Sun, a corporate communications consultant, said that even though he and his family moved back to his hometown of Beijing six years ago, he still missed New York.

'That's why we got our apartment near the Chaoyang Park. It makes me feel as if we're overlooking Central Park,' he said.

His return was partly because of September 11, Sun said, calling the US Patriot Act, passed a month after the attacks, 'a reproach to democracy'. The law led to a tightening of immigration controls in the US.

'To think that one man could screw up the strongest country in the world like this,' he said, referring to Osama bin Laden.

Sun was a day trader back then. He was on a cigarette break with a Russian friend near their office a few blocks from the Empire State Building when they saw the first World Trade Centre tower collapse.

Xiao Yan agrees that September 11 changed everything. Xiao, who now works for an international financial services company on the mainland, said tighter immigration policies and cuts in financial aid made things difficult for foreign students for a time.

But Joe Xia - working for the New York edition of a Hong Kong-based Chinese-language newspaper at the time - said the damage from September 11 was only on the surface.

'It produced a great visual impact, an effective piece of propaganda work,' said Xia, now working in the energy industry in Beijing.

'The aftermath was only brief, by which you could tell that [the US] was a very strong and resilient society - with strong industry and creative people.'

In fact, he said, nothing had harmed the US more than the 'reckless behaviour of Wall Street' - referring to the toxic securities that led to a global financial meltdown and the subsequent government bailouts, in which the public paid for losses incurred by a few people.

Xia returned to China only recently, partly because of the rapid change in the media industry and partly because of the 2008 recession, he said.

In contrast, Daniel Hu made up his mind to return to work in China a long time ago.

'From the time of the Oklahoma City bombing [on April 19, 1995], I learned how they would treat foreigners, even in primary school,' he said. 'For days, people thought the suspect must be some sort of foreign die-hard, and even kids in our school were separated into different groups - American kids, Muslim kids, non-Muslim foreign kids.

'Then it turned out that the suspect was just a local man. And it turned me off so much. Anything happens, they blame foreigners. And bin Laden was just smart in using this to lure the US into fighting two costly wars and not attending to their own economy.'

Hu is now between jobs after working for a state-owned company for three years.

For most Chinese returnees, the primary reason for coming home is economic opportunity. That was why the emigration wave did not crest right after September 11, but only after the economy showed danger signs.

There are two career tracks for the most successful returnees: They either work in universities, or for the China operations of a reputable international company.

Wang Shufeng, a chemical physicist, said he was satisfied with working at a top-notch university in China. He has a laboratory, students, assistants and grants from the government.

'I have no problem with any of these,' he said, although he acknowledged that he was still at a loss in dealing with all of the red tape.

Among the 86 candidates listed this year for membership of the Chinese Academy of Science, 71 have had overseas educational and work experience and 30 obtained their doctorates at universities in other countries.

Xu Heng, who works for a leading international firm in Beijing, said that when she graduated in the US, it was obvious that the job market there had dried up and China still had plenty of opportunities. 'The horizon for personal development looks much broader here,' she said.

Partly because of the economic difficulties in the US, more than 80 per cent of returnees say they believe there are more business opportunities in China right now, according to, a subsidiary of the official People's Daily.

Figures from mainland education authorities show that from 1978 to last year, 1.9 million students went abroad, in contrast to only 130,000 during the previous 106 years.

The number returning to China after their study overseas increased steadily in the mid-2000s, from fewer than 34,900 in 2005; to 70,000 in 2008; 100,000 in 2009; and 135,000 last year.

Because of relaxed student-visa policies and an increase in domestic household incomes in recent years, the number of outbound students has also seen a marked increase, from 229,000 in 2009 to 285,000 last year, official media reported.

For returnees, the welcome mat is out. The government is eager to recruit more overseas-trained professionals for its 12th five-year plan. It hopes to draw half a million or more returnees for the whole period, said Xia Wenfeng , an official familiar with 'returnees' affairs' at the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, during a meeting of the Western Returned Scholars Association late last month.

The government aimed to recruit returned scholars for a few priority areas, including in new technologies, regional development, agriculture and social programmes.