How quickly things change. Not so long ago, most Chinese who studied overseas stayed overseas because job prospects were far superior to those in China. Now, according to China’s Ministry of Education, three-quarters of Chinese students are returning home after graduation.
Finding a job overseas has gotten harder, while the job market in China has gotten better.
Chinese students who return home after studying abroad are called “haigui” or sea turtles (because the Chinese characters for returning from across the sea sound similar to those for sea turtle). Since the beginning of China’s reform in 1978, when the first wave of Chinese students started leaving, the number of overseas students grew on average by 20% a year. The vast majority of those who left did not come back. But those who did return were highly prized as the cream of the crop.
Today it’s a different world. The Ministry of Education reported that in 2015, 523,700 Chinese students went overseas while 409,100 returned. In five years, it’s believed the numbers returning will exceed those going abroad.
In addition, today’s returning graduates are no longer so highly prized. Many are finding their job prospects in China aren’t nearly as good as they expected. The wage differential between haigui and locals has narrowed. And some haigui are having difficulty finding any job at all.
One thing is that China has become a much more competitive market for graduates overall, whether from Chinese or foreign universities. In addition, more locals have acquired good language skills, so haigui bilingualism isn’t as much of an asset as it once was.
And, as The Economist noted, “. . .as China’s domestic market has taken off, industries such as e-commerce have evolved in ways unfamiliar to those who spent years abroad.” Venture capital firms that once funded only those with Silicon Valley experience now look more to “entrepreneurs from local universities, who are more familiar with local consumption patterns, computer-gaming habits and social media such as Weibo and Weixin.”
The current returnees also are different from the past. In the early days, only the very best were able to leave China and get overseas. That means they really were the cream of the crop, wherever they landed. Now, the quality of students is more mixed.
Private education company New Oriental Education, based in Beijing, says that 32% of students going abroad have parents with very ordinary means. That means that some families are making extraordinary economic sacrifices to get a child overseas without necessarily getting the return they expected.