Why Are China’s Most Talented Overseas Students Not Returning?

Why Are China’s Most Talented Overseas Students Not Returning?
Nov 20, 2013 Translated by eChinacities.com

Editor’s note: Sometimes the writing is on the wall: expats are leaving China in droves, Chinese are having their babies born as foreign nationals in droves, and now it is revealed that China is experiencing the greatest brain-drain in the world as its top talent is not returning home after studying abroad. Yes, when it comes to the sciences and engineering, it is in droves. This Chinese translated tries to explain this trend. While this article cites low salary and low living standards as reasons why these people impossibly choose to not come back, there may be more to it than that. Having been foreign-educated in a Western environment, which would you choose?

In recent years, the rate of Chinese foreign students that have returned after their studies has grown. However, if you look at the best and the brightest of these exchange students then the picture is very different; in fact China is losing more of its top talent than any other country.

Whether to return home or to remain abroad to establish one’s roots is a personal choice for any individual. However, the issue of why China’s top-tier talent is choosing to stay abroad rather than to return back to the homeland is worthy of consideration. Studies have shown that the main reasons for this trend are that China’s welfare system, quality of life and average salary are all comparatively lower.

Source: SFTHQ

How do the numbers look?

2013 data produced on the return rate of foreign exchange students shows that since the 1980s reforms were implemented, a total of 1.09 million people have returned to China; including 800,000 in the last five years alone, three times the number returning 30 years ago. 2012 saw the largest number return at 272,900; which is a growth of 46.57%.

Although this highlights the upward trend in the number of Chinese returning as a whole, it does not ring true for the highly talented students who have obtained doctorate degrees, who are performing research or who have high-level work skills. Within this group, the numbers returning to China are comparatively small. According to a report released by the Central Chinese Human Resources Work Coordination, China is losing more highly talented people than any other country, and about 87% of those not returning work in the fields of science and engineering.

So who is returning home?

An investigation has shown that the majority of students returning are those with Master’s degrees; compared to undergraduates and PhD students, they are the majority by a ratio of 1:8:1 (respectively: undergraduate, Master’s, and PhD). There is also a marked delineation by which these students choose their majors: graduates with a Master’s degree from an overseas university tend to have management or economic degrees, while graduates with a PhD tend to have degrees in sciences or engineering.

The average time spent by these overseas students to attain their degree abroad is about 1.9 years on average; of these, graduates with a Master’s degree spent an average of 1.5 years, graduates with a PhD degree spent an average of 3.8 years, while undergraduate students spent an average of 2.9 years. Approximately half of these students spent one year trying to obtain their Master’s diploma, and most did it at a university in the U.K.

As more and more overseas students are returning back to China, there is a transformation from previous generations who have made the same trip. For example, the previous trend was for returnees to come back to China to work at universities or to conduct further research; nowadays, returnees are joining businesses or starting up their own enterprises. They have been working abroad for a number of years and have seen the limitations of the foreign market; they feel as though they can count on their own talent and experience to achieve the greatest potential in the Chinese market. As well, these people see that development in China has been very quick, and that there are opportunities here that are hard to find elsewhere. The Chinese government has also rolled out the “Recruitment Program of Foreign Experts” policy that further stimulates talent to return to China by providing them favourable conditions should they do so.

There are many reasons to return to China

There are many reasons why an overseas returnee should come back to China: career, family, etc. Many returnees hope to contribute to China’s development and to achieve his own life’s worth. As well, there are those who weren’t able to obtain opportunities outside of China, and were then forced by the immigration office to leave for home. But the biggest reason for highly-talented overseas students to return home is career development. The overwhelming majority of Chinese overseas returnees say that China has the most economic opportunities.

So why do they stay away?

Aside from very few exceptions, the fact remains that the majority of overseas returnees have undergone intense psychological pressure: one aspect of this is the calculation they must make on exchange rates for purchases, and another aspect is the stress received from being in a foreign culture and its environment. According to many of these overseas Chinese students, studying abroad is a process by which knowledge is accrued just as it is a process by which their lives are transformed. Each child must head to their own independent place and face their own problems; this is the process of maturation.

“The houses and cars in China are too expensive and are not comparable to what people make on their salaries; this is an important reason for most overseas students as to why they don’t return,” said an overseas student. To take the integrated circuit industry as an example, graduates from Beijing and Shanghai stand to make anywhere from 10,000 RMB to 12,000 RMB a month with top-tier companies; however, these graduates would stand to make 3-5 times that amount if they were performing the same job in the USA. More importantly, there is a wide disparity between the technologies of local companies when compared to outside the country. Talented workers do not see returning to China as providing them with favourable circumstances.


Source: Wenxuecity

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Keywords: students not returning Chinese foreign exchange students overseas students


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can't blame them for not returning

Jun 28, 2015 01:11 Report Abuse



Seems obvious those who get out and find opportunity to stay out stay out

Mar 24, 2015 13:18 Report Abuse



It seems like only half an article. I was genuinely surprised when the article ended. Like most articles I expected the introduction followed by both points of view and a summary. I personally suspect family to be the main reason they return.

Jan 21, 2014 09:29 Report Abuse



Article didn't make sense to me. It seemed like the author was trying harder to convince people they should comeback/not leave China rather than answer the question of the title (which he/she/it didn't really). A new title may help the garble breach the realm of slop.

Nov 27, 2013 12:29 Report Abuse



In sociology they did a study on what happened to people who travelled to other tribes. Findings ---- they can't really fit into their own tribe upon their return. They did it with tribes living the forests. Time and again this has proven to be true globally. This is exactly the experience of many a expats who have built their career in Asia for decades and then return home for retirement. You see them back in less than half a year. You ask them, "Hey, what happened?" Their usual reply is, "When we talk to the 'locals', they think we are from Mars. For us, watching Coronation Street isn't living a life". That sums it up nicely. When you want to talk about a slice the size of Singapore just fell off the artic iceshield two days ago and what it really entails, they want to talk about and find out how much you have in the bank, what brand of condom you use, the color of your underwear you are wearing....etc. How can you and them really get along? Those who chant "we are all one" on this planet are, at best, naive and idealistic.

Nov 25, 2013 13:09 Report Abuse



Even as a PhD in China you're under huge pressure to perform. Companies that pay comparatively well for PhD level jobs fire about 30% of their workers in very regular intervals to "motivate" the remaining workers to work harder. Also academia is almost a guaranteed road to poverty in China, while a college professor for example will make good money in the US. Those that return already belong to the elite circles back in China via family connections and only go abroad to get an MBA so they can get promoted to higher positions in China. While they often struggle to pay for everything they want too, as good apartments, good cars and good education for kids are incredibly expensive, they have family support that makes up for short term economic shortcomings.

Nov 22, 2013 09:57 Report Abuse



I taught in ten unversities and high schools for seven years. I was not repeat employed in five universities bcause the tonzhers did not like my American teaching of business courses. I was retired at age 70 when I had written two complete courses and an English qualifying examination for a Doctor of Business Administration. When students return to China, the Chinese workers do not want competition from the returnees and do not want their ideas. Abroad the qualifications for diploma are not the same. Those in England are not as difficult as in other English speaking countries. When the Chinese citizens change their ideas about foreigner educated or foreign born workers, the situation of returning Chinese students will improve.

Nov 22, 2013 03:10 Report Abuse



Only a mere hundred years ago, plenty of their ancestors rushed to the West as cheap labor building railways, washing dishes in Chinatowns....etc. Reason -- poverty, for a better life. Similar reasons despite a hundred years have elapsed --- poverty. Back then, poverty in material supplies. Today, poverty in spirit, civilized neigbors....etc. Plus, they don't go/stay there as cheap slaves!

Nov 21, 2013 09:20 Report Abuse



Pretty interesting article, though I agree to the poster's comment that it doesn't highlight all the reasons (and for good reason, it'd be quite a long read if it did). The original author seems fairly biased, as he (or she, I can't be bothered checking) focuses on the number of students returning (not even mentioning the exact number of students who didn't return to China, while coming up with a bachelor/master's/PhD ratio for students who did - pretty much the opposite of what should have been the case) rather than on the numbers of those who don't. In addition to this, the author manages to come up with various reasons for students to want to return (family, career, etc.), while hardly mentioning any reasons for students to want to remain in the country in which they studied, other than a higher salary and better living standards (with factors for living standards such as a cleaner/healthier environment, etc., not even mentioned, but rather focusing on the comparatively higher salary). If the author's target audience is Chinese, wouldn't they already be aware of the reasons for people to return? It should be pretty obvious for anyone that students abroad have their relatives to return to, and the motive of returning in order to progress their career isn't worked out nearly well enough to work. If one can make five times as much money in the U.S. as he can here, wouldn't it be safe to say that they'd actually be better off furthering their career over there? Then there's things like air quality and better food/living standards, which all allow for a healthier and more relaxed way of life, which I imagine are quite important to a lot of people. Hell, whenever I visit the Netherlands and return here, I look forward to the variety of dishes, but never the quality or cleanliness. And then, of course, there's culture. I'm sure quite a few students who chose to remain abroad, especially seeing as how they tend to be highly educated, decided to stay there because they got used to and enjoy local culture and customs. A (Chinese) couple at my (Korean) girlfriend's work studied abroad in Korea, and they have apparently had the hardest time getting used to being back in China, even though they were born and raised here and were only gone for a year or two. They get annoyed by things they used to consider normal (table manners, noise, you name it) and regularly complain about it as though they're having a harder time fitting back in in China than they did in Korea. This kind of reversed culture shock, in addition to other factors, make for a far better explanation of why people choose to stay away than simply summing things up and assuming it was down to money. The topic is quite interesting, but the article is poorly written and not very well thought out/researched (perhaps the author had to meet a deadline?). I'd love to see more on this subject, as well as something similar regarding foreign students (why people decide to study in China, and whether or not they decide to stay after they've graduated).

Nov 20, 2013 14:26 Report Abuse



Excellent points, my fellow Dutchman, but I assume that this has already been extensively researched, to no avail. Perhaps the government tried to improve hygiene, habits and behaviour with some program or other, but I doubt it would have much effect. Habits are learned from childhood in China, and not easily unlearned due to the copying culture. 150 years after the discovery of the germ theory of disease, Chinese are still dipping their chopsticks into shared dishes, just with more emphasis that you shouldn't touch the sticks with your mouth. Western technology is seen as advanced and admirable, but the Chinese stake a lot of pride in the superiority of their culture, of which all these annoying (often local) habits are an integral part, I'm afraid. They simply refuse to adapt such aspects.

Nov 21, 2013 11:06 Report Abuse



"poorly written and not very well thought out/researched" Welcome to China, where everything is a sloppy job. :D

Nov 22, 2013 10:00 Report Abuse



Yeah, I realize that. I wasn't trying to imply that the government or individuals need to change their habits, but rather that certain people probably have some subconscious preference for certain cultures. I'm sure a lot of Chinese students go abroad without even considering cultural differences very much (just like foreigners coming to China and assuming things will just work out eventually, such as myself), or simply not caring very much about either culture and just focusing on their goal of achieving a certain degree. Some of those students are then bound to end up enjoying and (to some extent) adjusting to the new culture, after which they'd have a hard time readjusting on their return, or not wishing to return at all. My point is that this goes both ways, as I'm certain I'll have a hard time getting used to life in Holland (or wherever I end up) by the time I finish my stay in China. Being able to leave the house in whatever random assortment of clothes happen to be reasonably clean, without getting dumb looks or questions, for example, is something I will dearly miss. I agree that it will take a while for certain behaviours to change to what we might consider normal or polite, and I think the government should play a role in the matter (though I don't think government involvement will be the best way to drive change, as people will most likely a) not care and, b) be sceptical about why they're supposed to stop doing x and start doing y), but I'm actually quite impressed with the rate things have changed, at least here in Shanghai (I imagine things will take a lot longer in more remote areas). Though I still get frustrated with things on a daily basis, I find getting on/off the subway, for example, has gotten a lot 'friendlier' than it used to be six or so years ago when I first visited. Of course there are plenty of issues which don't seem to have changed much (blatant racism and sexism in job applications, for one), but those are often things that took forever to change in Western countries, too.

Nov 24, 2013 16:24 Report Abuse