Half of Chinese students at elite US colleges don’t want to return

Welcome home. Adrian Bradsahw/EPA

Brain drain has been a continuing problem in many developing countries for several decades. China is no exception. According to a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there were more than a million Chinese students studying abroad between 1978 and 2006 and 70% failed to return to China after graduation.

In an effort to lure top talent back to China, in recent years the Chinese government has been implementing various initiatives, such as the Thousand Talents Program for top scientists, to reward those who choose to return. Although these initiatives, along with the recent booming economy, have been able to attract more talent from overseas in the past decade, many of these Chinese are still not willing to give up their job in developed countries to move back to China.

My new research has examined the return intentions of overseas mainland Chinese students, looking at the push and pull factors on their decisions to stay or go.

We surveyed and interviewed 90 students studying at three elite universities located on the East coast of the United States. The results confirm a long-held concern regarding the low rate of return of mainland Chinese students studying overseas. Less than half of all respondents said they were “likely” or “very likely” to return to China upon graduation.

Most said they would like to gain at least a few years of working experience in the US before considering returning to China. But this temporary stay often leads to a longer or even a permanent stay after these students obtain suitable jobs, start families, and enjoy their careers in the US.

Our findings also indicate that both academic and economic factors have a greater deterrent effect on their return intention than political and social cultural factors. These findings are consistent with other studies.

Guanxi and work environment

One of the most common concerns shared by overseas Chinese scholars was that a “big gap exists in the academic environment [in China] as compared to that abroad”. It is clear that providing a rigorous academic and research environment is essential to attract top-notch talent back to China. A statement by one scholar perhaps best captured the essence of this sentiment: “The key to attracting outstanding overseas personnel to return to China lies not in providing generous remunerations but in creating a salutary academic environment.”

Another key concern identified by respondents that pushed them not to return home was the “guanxi-based” structure in the workplace in China. This means the success of one’s career depends more on social connections than on merit.

Many potential returnees were very concerned about the opaque regulation in China and a working environment that was mainly based on guanxi, rather than merit. To counter this fear, a concerted effort needs to be made to provide an environment that is conducive to innovation and professional development rather than politics. Establishing a transparent system of regulation and providing a sense of security and a fairer environment are of utmost importance to persuade high-calibre overseas Chinese to return home.

But the most influential factor in a student’s decision to return was job opportunities in China. Recent research has indicated that students from emerging economies are more likely to return to their home country compared to students from developing economies.

The rapid economic development in China over the past two decades has provided tremendous job opportunities and professional advancement opportunities that attract more returnees. Since many of these returnees are armed with international experience and management skills, they are often able to find senior management positions when moving back to China.

However, we found a difference in return intention among different groups. Students majoring in business were more likely to return to China. These students believed there were more business and job opportunities in China than in the US. They also felt that their degree from an elite university and their overseas experience opened many doors back home. They are also highly sought by international corporations seeking to expand in China and Asia.

In contrast, those pursuing degrees in social sciences such as education or humanities, and physical sciences such as physics or biochemistry expressed less interest in returning home. For social science students, the low income in China was a big factor preventing them going back. While for physical science major students, it was inadequate research facilities, a guanxi based environment, and academic corruption.

Education and pollution

Our findings also highlight a key concern about the education of the children of returnees. Based on our survey and interview data, children’s education and their future are of paramount importance to married students, especially those who have children.

Some said one of the main reasons they preferred staying in the US was more for their children’s futures than for their own. One major challenges their children could face would be the adaptation to the Chinese education system. Many feared their children might have a hard time adapting to the highly competitive education system in China.

Some, of course, would opt for an international school. But the option of sending their children to an international school could be costly and not affordable for all returnees. In order for China to lure back these talents from overseas, providing either financial or academic support to their children is of critical importance.

Perhaps one of the most surprising findings from our study was that many participants placed an emphasis on the importance of the natural environment as a key factor affecting their return intention. Many participants expressed great concerns about the environmental degradation in recent decades, which leads to serious health concerns and poor quality of life in general.

The recent economic boom has led to widespread environmental degradation in China. Though some efforts have been underway to raise the environmental standards in recent years, much more is still needed to be done. It will be crucial to making China a desirable place for its best and brightest to return.