How Chinese students who return home after studying abroad succeed – and why they don’t

David Zweig and Zoe Ge

The number of Chinese students returning from abroad has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2017, 608,000 students went abroad and 480,900 returned. China is proud of a return rate of 79 per cent; in 1987, the return rate was about 5 per cent, and in 2007 only 30.6 per cent.

Why this turnaround? Many students today are not committed to staying abroad. The largest group of students going out and coming back have been candidates for an MA degree – in 2015, 80.5 per cent of returnees were MA students – whose chances of succeeding abroad are not that great. Their major goal is to enhance their resumes for their job search back in China rather than seek a new life abroad.

But research shows that to really benefit from their time abroad, these young people need to select the right field or major, which affords them important opportunities back in a changing China, and they really need some work experience abroad.

Drawing on a recent questionnaire by the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG) that was posted on the website of Zhaopin, a job placement firm in China, and the 1,700 responses they shared with us, we looked at seven aspects of students’ decision to return: the time it took to find a job, how satisfied they were with their job and their lives after returning, whether the cost of studying abroad was greater than the benefits, how many years it would take to recoup the investment in their education, their actual income, and whether it was below their expectations.

Did these returnees find good jobs easily? According to the CCG data, 10 per cent of these 1,700 were “unemployed”, a term which the International Labour Organisation applies only to people who remain jobless after six months. One in 10 is not a big number, but it is not small given the expense, travel time and social and psychological dislocation.

Also, 65 per cent said they knew too little about China’s job market before they returned, so their work and life satisfaction has suffered, and they had false expectations about the salaries awaiting them in China.

Studying abroad also yields a limited income premium for people in this cohort, despite the money invested to enhance their human capital. Not so a decade ago. In 2006-07, when I surveyed 2,200 returnees from Japan, Canada and Hong Kong, and compared their income to local Chinese holding the same level of education, undergraduates, MAs and PhDs from overseas universities received around double that of local degree holders.

When the respondents to the CCG study were asked the advantages of studying abroad, they highlighted soft skills – 86 per cent selected a “global viewpoint”, 82 per cent picked “enhanced language skills”, and 79 per cent favoured “cross-cultural communication”. But statistical analysis shows that none of these three explain their “actual income” – those who picked the right major or engaged in some “cooperative endeavour” abroad got higher salaries, were more satisfied with their work and with their lives back in China, saw the benefits of study abroad as greater than its costs, and believed they could quickly recoup the costs of their study abroad.

Recently, economists at Southwest University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu compared matching pairs of college graduates whose only difference was whether they received their degrees in China or abroad. They found that returned undergrads received no salary benefit from studying abroad, while having a foreign MA increased salaries by only 20 per cent.

We also divided the seven reasons for returning into four categories: those who were “pushed out” of the West because of difficulties abroad, a “failure” hypothesis; people who were “pulled back” because of opportunities in China; those wanting to be close to their families; and those who returned for cultural or emotional reasons (including Chinese cuisine).

People could select more than one reason, and our calculations show that both culture and family were driving forces for 70 per cent of respondents. Opportunities in China pulled back 60 per cent, while difficulties abroad forced 27 per cent of people to return.

Family ties are powerful, particularly as 70 per cent of these 1,700 returnees are their parents’ only child. But when analysed, returning primarily for family is a bad option. These people received lower salaries, were dissatisfied with their job and their life, and had spent more time than others in searching for a job.

Similarly, those who admitted indirectly to failure abroad were no more successful back home. They were not very satisfied with their jobs back in China and will be paying off their debt for a longer time. On the other hand, those who returned for “culture” had a higher sense of life satisfaction.

The winners are those who came back for enhanced opportunity. Compared to those who “failed” abroad, these returnees found work more quickly, liked their jobs, enjoyed their lives, expected and got higher incomes, thought the costs of their overseas education were worth it and believed they would recoup their investment more quickly.

Many of these had planned their lives wisely. So, we can feel confident that hundreds of thousands of Chinese graduates from overseas universities are returning in anticipation that their life in China will be as good, if not better than life overseas, and in many ways, it is.

Still there is a serious contradiction here. President Xi Jinping’s current strategy combines tight internal controls with relative softness towards much of the world (wai song, nei jin). No doubt, these young returnees who have adopted a more international viewpoint will find opportunities in a more global China. But they could also confront serious internal stress as they try to adapt to an increasingly restrictive domestic environment.

David Zweig, Chair Professor in the Division of Social Science, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST)

Zoe Ge, Master of Philosophy graduate from HKUST, will be joining the PhD programme in political science at New York University

This article was published in the South China Morning Post on Friday, 27 July, 2018