Starting in the 1980s they went West to study.
Now mainland patriots are heading back in droves.
China will never be the same
by Robin Paul Ajello and Rose Tang
Five years ago, Chinese recruiters held a tea party at an office in Los Angeles. The get-together was Beijing's quaint attempt to woo Chinese students back to the mainland to live, work and presumably prosper. "Even the sun and moon are new in China," an official told the assembled crowd. "We hope you come back and help construct the motherland."
Bill Gu, who was studying at the University of Southern California, was one of several students in attendance. He sat there, sipping his tea, marveling at the officials' badly cut suits and ill-considered sales pitch. Gu was utterly underwhelmed by the apparatchiks' offer. They seemed actually to believe that state-sector jobs, two-bedroom apartments and education for his kids could entice him to forsake the American dream. "They even promised Beijing or Shanghai residency for the students' children," he recalls. "They think we are a bunch of peasants trying to get into the big cities? My children were born in America; they're American citizens." Gu quickly came to the conclusion that the Beijing recruiters had come to the United States merely to scam a vacation. He went home disgusted.
Gu left China in 1989. He was part of the great student exodus that began in the early 1980s, when the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping encouraged the best and the brightest to go overseas, learn and then bring back the intellectual motherlode to the motherland. For many years, particularly after the Tiananmen crackdown, students like Gu preferred to stay put overseas. They liked the freedom of speech, the superior education system and the abundant opportunities available in America, Britain, Australia and other countries.
But before long they began to hear about momentous changes in China - the new market-oriented economy, the growing tolerance for citizens' views and, especially, the potential millions to be made in the mainland. China, it seemed, was gradually becoming a nation they could actually be proud of; some overseas students discovered a latent love for their homeland. If China was ready for them, well, they were ready for China.
In 1996, two years after the tea party in Los Angeles, Bill Gu went back to hometown Shanghai, armed with a PhD in material science. His decision to return had nothing to do with the official recruiters; he went home on his own recognizance. Ironically, he wound up a recruiter himself, for the American headhunting firm Korn/Ferry International. Now Gu is cherry-picking from among the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fellow overseas students who are heading home in increasing numbers to seek their fortune.
Exactly how many are re-entering is hard to ascertain because no one keeps such figures. But Prof. David Zweig of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology estimates that the number of returnees has been growing at 15% every year since 1994. Zweig says he predicted the trend when he co-wrote China's Brain Drain to the United States in 1995. About a third of the students he interviewed for the book said that they planned to return.
Students told him their main motivation was the improved social standing they assumed they would find at home, plus deeply felt patriotism. For the most part, Zweig says, this is a male phenomenon. Women are less likely to return, he reports, because they prefer the foreign lifestyle, as well as the educational opportunities for their children. Moreover, women often believe their careers will founder in the mainland.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the homeward trickle has become a flood of late. This is due in part to the fact that many of the students who left in the 1980s are now in their mid-30s and early 40s, an age when people generally make - or change - career direction. That's partly why Qian Ning, 40, went home in 1995 after five years of teaching Chinese at the University of Michigan. "I was getting to the age where I had to make a decision about where I was going to live," says the bestselling author of Studying in America, who also happens to be the son of Deputy Premier Qian Qichen. "At the age of 30-something you have to make choices."
The homing instinct is crucial to China's development - as Deng fully realized nearly 20 years ago. He may well have taken his cue from Taiwan, where returning students in the 1970s helped transform the island into a technology powerhouse. Thanks at least in part to the individualism and lateral thinking encouraged in Western schools, Taiwan has built a nimble economy that is the envy of Asia. To keep its own modernization on track, China requires similar dynamism and expertise.
For the most part, mainland returnees are seeking opportunities with joint ventures or fast-rising private firms that offer better perks and working conditions than the state-sector alternatives. Some set up their own companies. Perhaps the best known of this breed is Charles Zhang, the founder of Internet firm Sohu.com. Other hardy souls opt for government jobs that allow them to bring fresh blood and ideas to policy-making. As Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew recently told Asiaweek: "If the Chinese want to grow fast, they must be flexible to reabsorb the 100,000-200,000 able Chinese who are abroad in America and Europe."
Love of country
In fact, most mainlanders, who went West have stayed put, and for many of them it is inconceivable that anyone would want to trade clean air, 500 television channels and democratic choice for the pollution, bureaucracy and daily frustrations of the People's Republic. Chinese who never had a chance to study overseas have an especially hard time understanding why these people are coming home.
When asked what drove him to do so, Fang Xinghai laughs: "Everyone asks me this question." After all, Fang, an economics PhD from California's Stanford University, had a much-sought-after job at the World Bank. Yet somehow it was not enough. So last year Fang, 35, quit his job, and headed home. He explains: "Most important was the opportunity to participate in the economic transformation of China. That is the biggest attraction for a lot of students like myself who have studied in America. The role we can play in China is much bigger than the one we can play in the U.S."
It took Fang several months to find a way to make a serious contribution. He wasn't interested in a high-flying start-up that would pay him big bucks and provide a bourgeois lifestyle. Rather he wanted to make an impact inside government, an ambitious goal. Eventually he was recruited by China Construction Bank. Its president, an old acquaintance, was looking for someone to help the state lender dig itself out from under 300 billion yuan ($37.5 billion) in non-performing loans.
Fang went to work immediately, helping set up Cinda Asset Management. China's first large-scale debt management company, it is wholly owned by the Ministry of Finance. The pay and perks are lousy compared with what he received at the World Bank, but Fang has found what he wanted, a chance to put his foreign-trained brain to work on one of China's most intractable problems - its unnerving domestic debt.
Patriotism and opportunity drove the deputy premier's son home to Beijing four years ago. It was hard to see how Qian Ning could lose, given his political connections, fluent English and years of experience abroad. "With my knowledge of China, I felt I could be of use to foreign investors," he says modestly. Qian quickly found himself a hot commodity for U.S. firms anxious to recruit returning Chinese who could help them make inroads into the mainland market. Qian went first to American accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand (now Price Waterhouse Coopers), where he worked as a consultant for three years. In 1998, he jumped to the Beijing office of MBP, a Chicago-based investment consulting company.
Besides nurturing dreams of building a modern China, many returnees also found living in the West unfulfilling. "Opportunities for Chinese overseas are limited," says Michael Lu, who earned an MBA from the State University of New York. "I didn't find an enjoyable job after graduation. Why would Americans treat people like me so hot?" From Lu's perspective, Chinese students are under-rated outside China. "There's such a China fever in the world at the moment," he says. "There are so many opportunities here." Today Lu is chief representative for Jardine Fleming Securities' Shanghai office.
Charles Zhang sums up his American sojourn this way: "I had so many big dreams but I couldn't make them come true. Being away from China for nine years - with English, foreigners and a different culture - I felt so lost. I was just a regular person there." No longer. Since his return to Beijing in 1994, Zhang, who earned a PhD in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is on his way to becoming the mainland's first Internet multi-millionaire; the press has already dubbed him the Bill Gates of China. After opening a representative office for American online outfit Internet Securities, he persuaded his MIT professors to put up $225,000 and, in 1997, started his own Internet company, Sohu.com. Today, Zhang's Chinese-language search engine receives an average of one million hits a day. More than half its advertising revenues come from foreign firms. Zhang plans to go public next year.
If Gates was Zhang's inspiration, then Richard Branson, the British founder of Virgin Records, is Shen Yongge's hero. Unlike many of his compatriots, Shen decided in 1985 to study in Japan. After completing a masters in economics at Tokyo's Hosei University, he was recruited by Victory Entertainment (JVC Records), Japan's largest recording company. But after six years as a salaryman, he realized that it would be decades before he got real responsibility. "I had been trying to assimilate into Japanese society. At the end of the day, I didn't know what I was doing."
In 1992, Shen heard for the first time the music of the Chinese rock band Hei Bao (Black Leopard). "They are my age," he thought, "and they are playing for 1.2 billion people!" Two years later, Shen flew home, where he opened JVC's first Beijing office and signed a contract to promote Hei Bao. Before long, he had several artists on the payroll, including pop singer Chen Lin, who became his girlfriend.
In 1996, Shen quit JVC and established his own company, Zhu Shu, or Bamboo Book. The government, however, was nonplussed by his patriotic fervor for homegrown rock 'n' roll. Shen approached various officials for funding but in vain. Eventually, a bureaucrat told him: "You take good care of yourself." Shen took the comment as a tacit gesture of official moral support. "I only needed them to give us some space to grow," he says.
He went on to find a private investor and today spends his time looking for the next big star and shuttling between Beijing and Tokyo, where he also represents bands. "China will never be colonized by fast-food culture," he insists. "I want to create our own rock 'n' roll."
Despite the runaway success of Sohu.com's Zhang and others, going home can be a disconcerting experience for the returning expatriate, especially in China, where, even today, change is measured by great leaps forward. For students who went West in the early 1980s, the mainland has become a jarringly foreign place. Almost nothing could prepare them for the culture shock.
Jonathan Pan, who earned a doctorate of law from the University of Washington, was paralyzed at first on his return to Shanghai in 1998. "It was deja vu all over again," says the lawyer who now works for a large foreign law firm. "Coming back is like going overseas again. I had to re-adapt to a new environment."
His first lesson: ignore the traffic lights. "Once I waited 15 minutes trying to cross a street," he says. "I was very frustrated." Now Pan strides nonchalantly into the traffic chaos, ignoring the blaring horns as he chats on his mobile phone. Lesson No. 2: get used to sleep deprivation. Socializing with local partners in karaoke bars and then returning to the negotiating table the following morning with a king-size hangover has become a regular part of his job. Pang also has to deal with his concerns about China's political stability and judicial independence. And his wife Gu Ming misses her cushy job at the New York Public Library.
By contrast, Jardine Fleming's Michael Lu slipped back into his old ways with no trouble whatsoever. Within a day of his arrival in Shanghai, he was wearing flip-flops and cycling to the market for oil twist pastries, onion pancakes and soya milk. Being perceived as a native is not necessarily a career-plus, however. Lu notes that he was hired on local terms at a fraction of the salary he enjoyed in the U.S.
For many returnees, keeping quiet about their overseas experiences is a basic survival instinct. No need to make compatriots jealous. And these days a whole new dynamic is in play. Since the NATO bombing of Beijing's Belgrade embassy in May, people who spent years in the United States have good reason not to boast about their Ivy League educations. This is especially true of returnees who take up positions in the bureaucracy, where toeing the Party line is a question of survival and back-stabbing is a growth industry.
Toiling in the state sector has other downsides. Returnees who have become used to a can-do work environment overseas quickly become disillusioned with the glacial pace of change, not to mention their inability to do anything about it. In many cases, they give up, pack their bags and catch the next flight out of China.
For her part, Wendy Wu paid a heavy emotional price for her decision to return to Shanghai from Houston in 1996. For starters, she left behind her husband and was the butt of malicious gossip as a result; people said she had returned not because she really wanted to but because her marriage had failed. Her mother scolded her day and night, complaining that the family had lost face. Wu's father even wrote to her husband urging him to order her back to Houston. "I became a criminal in their eyes," she says. "I had to hide when visitors came to my parents' house."
In fact, when Wu first went to the U.S. in 1992 as a journalism graduate, she had no plans whatsoever to return. "At that time, going to America was everyone's ultimate dream. We all thought we'd never return - like dumplings thrown to a dog." She completed an MBA at the University of Houston and worked for a local Chinese newspaper and television network. But while her fellow expatriates seemed happy enough in the U.S., the prospect of paying a mortgage seemed dull. "America is a kaleidoscope; you can watch and learn a lot," she says. "But I was always wondering - when would I get on-stage and play a role?"
So she returned and dealt with the snide comments about her casual clothes and her lack of material wealth. For a while she worked at a Shanghai television station but found it hard to accept the vagaries of mainland censorship. Once her producers banned the word "sexy" in a show about fashion; another time they watered down a program about women's rights.
Wu's story has a mostly happy ending, however. Though her marriage did end, despite her husband's return to China, eventually the South African diamond colossus De Beers hired her to take charge of the China market. Wu has even found a niche for her journalistic talents; she writes a relationships column for the Chinese edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. "What I dreamt of doing has been realized here," she says. "I feel useful to society."
The last great wave of Chinese returnees was educated in the former Soviet Union during the 1950s, before relations between Moscow and Beijing went into a deep freeze. Those men and women today dominate China's governing elite. President Jiang Zemin and former premier Li Peng both did obligatory stints in the U.S.S.R. The question for the current crop of returning students is how long they will have to wait before they too can influence the mainland's domestic agenda.
Much depends on how seriously Beijing takes the returnees' expertise. Theoretically, highly educated people like Charles Zhang can play a vital role in boosting China's research and development - in addition to running a money-making Internet portal. Already many returnees are being recruited for senior jobs at prominent Chinese universities. But they are far more committed to academic and scientific exchanges with the West than their predecessors.
In fact, their attitude could be a handicap. While the previous generations brought home Soviet notions of state planning and socialism, this brave, new breed has very different ideas about the use of power, links with the outside world, government transparency and, of course, freedom of speech. Their attitudes don't always fly with the powers that be.
And yet those who decide to return often find the going less arduous than they had expected. Fang Xinghai, the economist recruited to save the ailing state bank, was pleasantly surprised. He urges other returnees to adopt his recipe for success in government or the state sector. First, he says, it is crucial that the top leader in the organization has a handle on precisely what skills the person is bringing home, and that he provides covering fire against trouble-makers. "If you are put in a place where there is no comparative advantage," says Fang, "there will be no role to play." Second, Fang says, the returning expatriate must possess a clear, realistic idea of what he or she hopes to achieve. "You have to ask yourself what you are after. If you came for money, you are wrong. For power? No way." At least, not in the short term - unless you are a Charles Zhang or Qian Ning.
While the deputy premier's son began missing American music and movies the moment he left the University of Michigan, he discovered that such entertainment is now widely available in Beijing. In fact, he reports experiencing a kind of reverse culture shock. He yearns for the freedom of driving along open highways and confesses to an admiration for America's free-wheeling individualism, but has no regrets about going home. "Life is different here," he concedes. "You gain here, lose there, but you can't complain."
Many will inevitably look to Charles Zhang. "If the returnee is successful, he will be more credible and the government will pay attention to what he says," he reckons. "For three years, I was unknown. Nobody listened to me." Now, of course, the government is all ears.