While traditional discourse has focused on the exodus of well educated professionals from developing nations, over half a million Chinese students who had worked or studied abroad had returned home by the end of 2009. They are commonly referred to as haigui or “sea turtles.” This group is using the skills gained in their ventures abroad to fundamentally restructure China’s economy. Some of China’s most innovative firms like Baidu, the provider of China’s largest search engine, were founded by Chinese graduates of American universities.
The economic impact of “brain gain” has and will continue to be profound, but the political and social implications are still to be determined. Chinese citizens educated abroad have had significant exposure to Western liberal ideas and could serve as a catalyst for political change in China. As more Chinese return from their education abroad and gain influence in business and politics, they could lead the charge for democratic change. The prospects for change, however, are ultimately determined by the motives of those who seek to study and work away from China.
The Impact of Returnees
In his recent book Borderless Economics, Robert Guest argues that young Chinese college students who study at American universities eagerly absorb democratic ideals alongside technical training. According to Guest, as returnees assume leadership positions in Chinese government and business, they will use their influence to push for democratic change. Recent developments lend support to this argument. Cheng Li, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, contends that returnees have had a huge impact on Chinese higher education. This is particularly true of think tanks that advise the government.
At the same time, foreign returnees are gaining influence in the Communist Party. Li estimates that they will make up 15 to 17 percent of the Central Committee next year, up from six percent in 2002. Vivek Wadhwa, a research fellow at Stanford University, told the HPR that China’s real strength lies in this rising generation of leaders, “They don’t hesitate to think outside the box, to take risks, or to have ambition,” he says. “Unlike their parents, this new generation can innovate.”
It is not clear, however, that foreign returnees will use their growing influence to promote democratization. Andrew Scott Conning, a researcher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, tells the HPR that Chinese students who choose to study abroad “are less likely than those who stay home to end up working in the public sector.” He admits that “although government agencies and the Communist Party do attempt to draw talent from among returnees,” such positions actually represent a small share of China’s returnees.
The extent to which sea turtles bring democratic values to Chinese education may also be exaggerated. According to Conning, the influence of foreign returnees on education is strongest at the university level, where their qualifications are in high demand. By contrast, their influence fails to reach the majority of Chinese citizens who do not attend higher education because they serve a minimal role in primary and secondary education.
Returnees are far more likely than their Chinese-educated counterparts to find job opportunities at high-paying international firms operating in China, Richard Freeman, a professor of economics at Harvard University who studies labor markets, told the HPR that economic opportunity drives most returnees’ decision to return home. In fact, most Chinese students choose to study at American universities simply to increase their career opportunities, without a mind to bring liberal democracy home with them.
Who are the Sea Turtles?
Chinese families have learned that a diploma from the U.S. can give their child a competitive edge in the job market. Moreover, studying abroad in the U.S. is expensive, so most Chinese families will not invest in an overseas education unless they feel that it will pay off financially in the long term. As Jiang Xueqin, a director at Peking University High School, stated in a recent article in The Diplomat, Chinese students are seeking American academic credentials “primarily to advance their careers, with little interest in learning more about the West.”
Because most Chinese students do not come to the U.S. for political reasons, it is wrong to assume that they all return home with a more liberal outlook. Xueqin explains that most sea turtles come from wealthy and powerful families. Accordingly, some of China’s strongest anti-Western critics and nationalists have emerged from this group of returnees. Overall, despite the exposure to democratic norms and values, many of the sea turtles may have no desire to significantly speed up democratization in China any time soon.