Skip to main content

China's young talent: To stay or to go?

By Steven Jiang, CNN
November 14, 2012 -- Updated 0507 GMT (1307 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Despite China's rapid economic growth, some desire life abroad
  • Some say opaque power transition adding more uncertainty to the country
  • 1.5 million Chinese are studying overseas, making it the largest group of foreign students in world
  • Chinese who live overseas and return are called "sea turtles"

Beijing (CNN) -- On the leafy campus of Beijing Foreign Studies University, one of China's most prestigious foreign language schools, graduating senior Gao Yue and her classmates go about their daily routine of studying and playing, showing little sign of anxiety over the impending dive into the real world.

Gao, a 22-year-old journalism major, has long planned her future outside China ever since she spent a month in the United States as an exchange student during high school. Going overseas after college is not a question of if, but when, she says. And it's not about a higher living standard.

"Press control is quite strict in China and we're looking for free speech," she said. "I think critical thinking is one of the most important things I want to pursue abroad."

Analyzing China's leadership change
China's environmental challenges
Chinese activist's family carry scars
An inside look at China's power change

"In China, the kind of education pushes people to think the same way, to drive them to the 'right' answer -- and I think being a journalist, being critical is the most important thing," she added.

Read: Chinese graduates fight to be heard

Gao is hardly alone in preparing to leave China, despite the nation's rapid economic growth during a global slump. As Beijing embarks on a once-in-a-decade leadership change, many observers say the opaque process of power transition is adding more uncertainty to a country already faced with challenges ranging from a widening income gap, a worsening natural environment, to rampant official corruption and the lack of free speech.

Nationwide, the education ministry's latest statistics show that almost 1.5 million Chinese are studying overseas, making China the largest source of foreign students for the rest of the world. The number of Chinese students going abroad has grown more than 20% every year since 2009, according to the government.

Read: Why the Chinese are flocking to U.S. colleges

A likely more worrying trend for the authorities is how billionaire entrepreneurs are moving away, along with their money and talent. Hurun Report, a magazine best known for its ranking of the wealthiest individuals in China, recently surveyed 1,000 super-rich Chinese, finding 60% of the respondents either in the process of immigrating or seriously considering it.

"What we are seeing is a sense of insecurity or, perhaps you want to look at it from another side, looking for a sense of insurance policy," said Rupert Hoogewerf, publisher of Hurun Report. "So they are beginning to quite actively try and get a green card in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Singapore."

The latest wave of exodus, especially among the younger generation, is helping people like Jinbo Xie do brisk business.

Xie founded and runs BeBeyond, a personal development training firm with some 40 employees as well as branches in Beijing and Shanghai. His company prepares thousands of young Chinese like Gao every year to study abroad and charges them as much as $2,500 for a six-week course.

Xie, 45, belongs to a group called "sea turtles" -- a nickname that plays on the sound of the Mandarin word for overseas returnees. When he came back to China in 2001 after studying and working in the United States for eight years, "sea turtles" were all the rage.

It's very exciting here -- a lot is happening. We do have the chance to make some impact.
Jinbo Xie

The phenomenon has tapered off in recent years as China's economic growth -- though still impressive by global standards -- slows. Xie says many returnees also start to find adapting to their motherland much harder than they thought.

"In the past two years, people made up their mind to go abroad again due to the exposure of environmental pollution, food safety and other problems in China," he said.

Xie remains unfazed himself and even did something unthinkable to most Chinese: To focus on growing his company, he gave up his American green card two years ago.

"It's very exciting here -- a lot is happening," he explained. "We do have the chance to make some impact."

"Even though we have a lot of problems, setbacks and whatever, at some point, we'll be there -- that's how I feel," he added.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2359 GMT (0759 HKT)
The new U.S. deal with China on greenhouse gases faces enormous challenges in both countries. Jonathan Mann explains.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 0338 GMT (1138 HKT)
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 2026 GMT (0426 HKT)
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0101 GMT (0901 HKT)
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0551 GMT (1351 HKT)
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
November 3, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 0500 GMT (1300 HKT)
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0528 GMT (1328 HKT)
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 0518 GMT (1318 HKT)
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
China sends an unmanned spacecraft to the moon and back but is country following an outdated recipe for superpower status?
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Full marks for ingenuity: Students employ high-tech gadgets worthy of a spy movie to pass national exam.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0526 GMT (1326 HKT)
Confucius Institutes seek to promote Chinese language and culture but some have accused them of "cultural imperialism."
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1511 GMT (2311 HKT)
Smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G wants everyone to know that he's not a foreign agitator trying to defy the Chinese Communist Party.
ADVERTISEMENT