Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Chinese 海归 (Turtles) Returning Home

I was in Beijing a few weeks ago, talking to some expat friends when we started discussing the changing dynamic of English speakers in China. 

As one of my friends noticed, there were noticably more Chinese people who graduated from overseas universities in the Beijing social circle. These include those who have grown up in the foreign country and those who went there to exculsively study. 

Talking to a family friend a few days later, he estimated that more than 250,000 海归 have come back from different countries abroad in the past year. This friend, who is involved in many academic and business circles, explained that the recent financial turmoil has drastically increased the rate of return of both recent college graduates and experienced professionals. "The world economy is helping to bring the best and brightest home."

For years there have been a brain drain on China. After President Nixon's visit to China, many promising Chinese have traveled to and studied at American universities. These were often the best and most promising students in China. While some came back, most remained abroad to make their new home. My family is an example of this process. Those who did return to China have done quite well. These people are influencial in business, academica and politics. (Many friends of my parents are CEOs, university presidents and influencal policy makers after returning in the mid-90s.

In recent years as the Chinese economy has boomed, many people who otherwise would have stayed abroad are returning to China. I am one of these people. The China story was too strong for me to not come back to China and experience it first hand. Although I plan to go back to the USA (who knows when), I definitely know China will be a big part of my future. 

It seems now with the economic crisis in full swing, this desire to return to China has caught on with more and more 海归. Just as there are record layoffs in the US in just about every industry, China is still experiencing a high growth rate and a bright future. Why wouldn't people come back. Jim Rogers even moved to Asia so that his daughters can learn Chinese.

The current return of 海归 creates some interesting issues for the future:
1. As fast as China is changing now, more Chinese with experience in other countries will increase the momentum. Armed with new thinking and new ideas of the west, they will make a lasting impact on Chinese society. This includes lifestyle, culture and day-to-day life things. 

2. Chinese competitiveness in the global market will increase dramatically. An increase of western thinking combined with current practices gives large Chinese companies a boost. 

3. More successful small businesses will be created in the long term. With practical experience in western corporations, returning Chinese will take advantage of low labor costs and set up more and more SMEs. 

4. There will be more competition in every field - from jobs to bank lending and resources.

5. The government will have to find a way to best utilize the skills, talents and influences of these 海归.

6. There will be a change of social dynamics between locals and 海归 as well as the relative relationship and negotiation of idenity and diaspora with the changing China.

Ultimately, the return of soo many foreign Chinese will only change China faster and improve its place in the world. This currently hidden phenomenon will have a big impact in the future development and modernization of China.


miles said...

Man you always write about the right stuff, definitely a talent! You see very clearly. Even before 'turtles' began to return, the overseas Chinese community has always been a big asset to China, not least of all as clients for its export industry. The re-export industry in Hong Kong and thus the PRD by extension are the best examples of turtle power closest to home. Even if other countries exactly mimiced Chinese economic policies and incentives, they wouldn't be able to compete with the tangible benefits of having turtles spread so far, dense and wide.

The turtles probably served intangibles benefit as well, almost like branding the Chinese around the world. Now that our brand is integrated and recognized everywhere, bringing the turtles home would not only be an economic multiplier for China, as you've observed here. Especially true for social and cultural undertakings, only the first link is needed before an entire chain can be forged. Hell if I went back to Hong Kong, I'd bring my take on New York modern jazz back with me. Even if it were just me, I alone could influence an entire group of musicians namely because they would think my intermediate western-honed skills god-like or something heh. They have the urge to play alright, but even now there is just too little authentic direction or native competition. Anyway you're right, that's going to change.

LA Guy said...

I never knew I was a "turtle" ( overseas Chinese born in the USA ).
But now that I'm getting older, I'm coming back to China for a long visit to see for myself ).

I believe the changing economic climate and future in the US ( etc ) is motivating turtles to "return home".

Thanks for sharing your experiences in this inciteful blog.

Regards, LA Guy