The return of Chinese overseas students to the motherland: Filial piety and nation building 中国留学生回国:孝道与民族建设

By Michael Xiaochen Zhang 张笑尘

December 20, 2019 

NANJING, China — As China enters a new era of social development in tandem with a more mature phase of the economic growth development cycle, an increasing number of Chinese students choose to study abroad, primarily in the United States. In recent years, an increasing proportion of Chinese overseas students, known as haigui (海龟), have returned to the mainland to enter the domestic workforce. Superior job prospects and salaries in Western developed countries, as well as poor domestic economic conditions in China, deterred previous generations of Chinese overseas students from returning to the mainland. The National Science Foundation found that in 2013, 92% of Chinese graduates with American PhDs had remained in the U.S. five years after graduating. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Chinese students studying outside of China increased by 53,700, or 8.83% and the number of students returning from study abroad increased by 38,500, or 8%.

中国南京 — 随着中国进入社会发展的新时代,经济发展也迈向更成熟的阶段,越来越多的中国学生选择出国留学,留学的目的地主要是在美国。近年来,越来越多的中国海外学生,也就是“海龟”,选择返回内地进入国内劳动力市场。从历史上看,相较于西方发达国家优越的就业前景和薪水,国内经济状况止步不前,因此前几代中国海外学生选择留在国外。根据美国国家科学基金会的数据,“ 2013年……92%拥有美国博士学位的中国毕业生在毕业后的五年内仍生活在美国。” 然而,与2017年的统计数据相比,2018年出国留学的学生人数增加了53,700,或8.83%;与此同时,回国的学生人数增加了38,500,即8%。

China sends the majority of international students studying in the United States.
Source: Institute of International Education (2016)

As a result of its meteoric growth, China’s economy has become the second largest in the world. Chinese overseas students find it increasingly easier to return home to a strong job market comparable to that of the U.S. Through interviewing returned students, it became clear that many also return home to fulfill filial duties, including caring for aging parents or starting a family and helping in nation-building efforts. Research suggests that returning students working for the Communist Party of China (CCP) or state-owned entities can build towards the goal of developing China domestically, while also helping China advance internationally, as it enters a new era  “中国新时代” (Zhōngguó xīn shídài) of the social, geo-political and economic growth cycle.

由于经济的飞速发展,中国已成为世界第二大经济体。因中国的就业市场发展势头较好,中国海外学生更倾向于回国工作,他们反而不愿意毕业后留在美国。 通过采访回国的学生,我们发现,许多人回家履行孝道,例如照顾年迈的父母,或者选择成立新家庭以及为国家建设作出贡献。研究表明,回国后为共产党或者国企工作的海归不仅可以帮助中国实现国内发展目标,还能推进中国的国际化进程,尤其是在新时代背景下中国已经开始了新一轮社会、地缘政治和经济发展的循环。

After graduating from Georgia Tech in 2017 with a Master of Arts (MA) in Material Sciences and Engineering, Qu Chong (瞿冲) decided to return to China and take a job at China’s Central Bank in Beijing. Similarly, Juliet (沈澄宣) graduated from Georgetown University with an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. She accepted a Chinese government fellowship, which covered her tuition to study at Georgetown. The fellowship required Juliet to work in an underdeveloped part of China for five years after graduation. Currently, Juliet teaches at a school in a rural area of Guilin, a city in southern China. The SAIS Observer sat down with both recent graduates to discuss what prompted them to return home.

 2017年从佐治亚理工学院获得材料科学与工程学硕士学位之后,瞿冲决定返回中国,并在北京的中国银行工作。 同样,沈澄宣毕业于乔治城大学,拥有英语教学的硕士学位(TEFL)。 她接受了中国政府的奖学金,其中一部分覆盖了她在乔治城学习的学费。 作为奖学金的一部分,中国政府要求沈澄宣毕业后要在中国欠发达的地区工作五年。 目前,沈澄宣是中国南方城市桂林农村地区一所学校的老师。 SAIS观察员与他们俩相谈甚欢,从中深入了解到他们决定回国的原因。

Qu Chong and Zhang Ye receiving their official marriage license in 2017
瞿冲和张叶于2016年获得正式结婚证
Photo credit: Zhang Ye (张叶)
照片来源:张叶

What were the main factors that influenced your decision to return to work in China?

你回国工作的主要原因是什么?

Qu Chong (瞿冲): Firstly, [it] was for family reasons. Zhang Ye (his wife) and I planned to build a life together in China. It was because both of our parents are in China. Due to the family planning policy, the vast majority of people born around 1990 in China are only children. Zhang Ye and I are both only children. My parents are getting older, and I feel that we have a responsibility and obligation to support them. The second was for personal reasons. I want to work hard to improve my family’s social status and to benefit my children and future generations. In my opinion, doing this in the United States is harder than doing it domestically.

瞿冲: 有两点原因:首先,家庭原因。我和张叶计划在国内发展。也因为双方父母都在国内,因为计划生育政策,国内1990年左右出生的人绝大多数是独生子女。我和张叶都是独生子女,父母年老,我觉得我们有赡养的责任和义务;第二,个人原因。我想通过努力,实现家庭社会地位的提升,使子女获益。对我来说,在美国做到这点比在国内要难。美国虽好,但可能是绝大多数国人偏安一隅的选择。

Juliet (沈澄宣): The main reason[s] why I returned to work in China [was] not only my family, but also because of the work contract that I signed. Because I participated in the national scholarship study abroad program, I never even considered looking for a job in the United States.

沈澄宣: 我回到中国工作的主要原因不仅是因为我的家人,还因为我签订了工作合同。我参加了国家奖学金的出国留学计划,所以我一开始就从未考虑过在美国找工作。

Are you satisfied with your decision to return to China?

你对回国的决定感到满意吗?

Qu Chong (瞿冲): I am satisfied. By returning to work in China, I have the opportunity to contribute to the construction of the motherland, and at the same time I have the happiness of creating my small family. Finally, my personal abilities are also well-exercised in China.

瞿冲: 满意。通过回国工作,我有机会为建设祖国做出贡献,同时收获了小家的幸福,个人能力也得到了很好的锻炼。

Juliet (沈澄宣): I am very satisfied with the decision to return to China to work. I think that my work creates value for the country and society.

沈澄宣: 我对回国工作感到非常满意。 我认为我的工作为国家和社会创造了价值。

Do you feel that by working in China, you are contributing to the future of China’s growth?

您是否觉得在中国工作为中国的未来发展做出了贡献?

Qu Chong (瞿冲): Yes, working for a state-owned bank is sometimes like lying next to the railway track; you can hear and feel the development of China’s economy more directly.

瞿冲: 是的。就个人而言,因为在国有商业银行工作,有时就如同躺在铁轨边,听着中国经济呼啸而过,能够更加直接地感受到它的发展,我认为我们海外毕业生正在为国家发展做出自己的贡献。

Juliet (沈澄宣): Yes, I do! I am so happy that all of my students are so amazing! I am sure that they are going to make great contributions to China!

沈澄宣: 是的,我愿意! 我很高兴我有一群很棒的学生! 我相信他们将为中国做出巨大的贡献!

As China has grown economically and politically stronger, the CCP has dubbed the current period as “China’s new era.” Xi Jinping and the party have leveraged this rhetoric to build a new wave of nationalism, which appears to have successfully influenced Chinese youth. As larger quantities of well-educated students return home to China after completing their overseas education, they could prove to be the key tool that the CCP may wield to achieve its goal of supplanting the U.S. in the global arena.

随着中国在国际上经济和政治地位的逐渐增强,中共将这一时期称为“中国的新时代”。习近平和党通过这种言论建立了新的民族主义浪潮。 显然,这种爱国主义形式可能已经成功地影响了中国青年。 随着大量受过高等教育的学生完成海外教育后回国工作,他们可能成为中共用来实现其在全球舞台上取代美国这一目标的关键工具。

The Confucian principle of filial piety is ingrained in the social and cultural fabric of Chinese life. China instills the value of service towards family and nation in Chinese youth from an early age. Vanessa Fong, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Amherst College, researches how the experiences of partly transnational youth born under China’s one-child policy between 1979 and 1986 shed light on anthropological, sociological and psychological theories. She wrote that, “as with many other nationalisms based on familial idioms that portrayed the nation as a ‘collective individual,’ post-Mao China was defined as a loving mother who deserved the lifelong devotion of her children.” In the future, there may be a spike of overseas Chinese students eagerly willing to come home and build towards the goal of developing China into the world leader. 

孝道是一种儒家原则,有史以来就已经根深蒂固地融入了中国的社会和文化结构。 从很小的时候起,中国的年轻人就开始为家庭和国家服务。 阿默斯特学院人类学副教授范妮莎方(Vanessa Fong)的研究重点在于,在1979年至1986年期间独生子女政策背景下出生的部分跨国青年的经历如何阐明了人类学、社会学和心理学理论,他说:“与许多其他基于家族习语的民族主义(将民族描述为“集体个体”)一样,后毛泽东时代的中国更像是一个慈爱的母亲,并且值得孩子用一生为其奉献。” 将来,中国留学生回国的趋势会愈演愈烈,他们将为国内发展作出贡献,推动中国朝着世界领导者的目标迈进。

China once suffered from a “brain drain” of its top talent, as students and young professionals flowed into the U.S. for better jobs and salaries. However, as the Chinese economy continues to grow, Chinese students are better able to return home, fulfill their filial duty to the motherland, and commit to realizing the “China Dream.”

由于国内贫困的状况,中国过去一直遭受人才流失的困扰。 但是,随着这种趋势的转变,将有大量才华横溢的中国学生为祖国“尽孝”,并致力于实现“中国梦”。

Joshua Cartwright assisted in reporting for this article.

Joshua Cartwright协助撰写了本文