Toward greener pastures
While Chinese students were once leaving the country in droves to seek better opportunities in life, many of them today view China as the promised land
The number of Chinese students who returned to China following their graduation from overseas institutions hit over 432,500 by the end of 2016, the highest in history, according to China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.
Among the total of 2.65 million returnees, 70 percent of them came back in the past five years.
According to a report by the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), a Chinese global think tank, 43.7 percent of the students polled by the center cited emotional and cultural factors as the main reason for returning, while 37 percent cited China's political stability and the belief that it has a brighter economic future compared to other nations. In addition, close to 23 percent of the respondents felt it is now harder to secure a job in foreign countries.
Business and employment social networking service LinkedIn concluded that a growing number of Chinese students are returning because of the growing pace of development across many industries in China and the upgrading of the Made in China industrial chain.
"We will do more to implement the strategy of innovation-driven development, upgrade the structure of the real economy and improve its performance and competitiveness," said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in the Government Work Report which was delivered to the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, in Beijing on March 5.
For Liu Qi, the CEO of Beijing-based Finup Credit, it was the rise of China's internet finance sector that drew him home.
"Finup was the smallest company among my other choices but I felt it was the most professional one," said Liu, who used to work in a famous bank on Wall Street.
"People these days don't just want a stable job and income - they want to create value in a market," he added.
According to the China Overseas Returnees Employment Survey jointly published by CCG and Zhi-lian Recruitment, the majority of Chinese students (20.23 percent) who returned to China in 2016 found jobs in the financial sector. Meanwhile, 17.49 percent found jobs in the internet sector while 13.27 percent entered the business consultancy field.
Countering the brain drain
Apart from the prevailing market factors that have compelled many to return, the Chinese government has also been proactively luring its citizens home.
In 2008, the central government launched the Thousand Talents Program which dishes out incentives such as business subsidies to attract Chinese talents specializing in science and technology.
Local governments supported this initiative with a host of programs as well. For example, returnees starting businesses in Beijing's Zhongguancun Science and Tech Park stand to receive up to 100,000 yuan ($14,500) in grants and a 40-square-meter office space that is rent-free for the first year.
According to the Shanghai Returnees Pujiang Talent Plan Management, the city will provide up to 500,000 yuan in government funding to returnees who decide to establish their own startups. These companies can also apply for a 150,000 yuan interest-free loan.
Shanghai, which has been making efforts to transform itself into a global science and technology innovation hub, has also set up 11 returning entrepreneur zones around the city. More than 140,000 returnees are working or have set up their enterprises in Shanghai to date, according to official records.
Luring them home
Domestic companies have been following in the footsteps of the government, with many holding recruitment drives in foreign countries that are popular with Chinese students.
Large local corporations have even partnered with the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) to hold overseas recruiting sessions every year.
Zhou Guoliang, who graduated from Columbia University in 2016 with a master's degree in operations research, is one such individual. He was talent scouted by Chinese companies when he was in New York.
"I did a lot of research and compared my prospects with other foreign companies before deciding to come back to China," said Zhou, a financial analyst at China International Capital Corporations (CICC).
"I received several offers from New York-based companies but they were all small firms. I chose to work at CICC because it is a large corporation that offers good job prospects and a much higher salary compared to overseas companies."
Zhou said that CICC recruited five overseas returnees who graduated this year. He also estimates that half of the employees hired this year have studied abroad or worked in foreign financial industries before.
Yao Han, the vice manager of Strategy&, PWC's strategy consulting arm, said that overseas recruitment was unpopular when he graduated in 2010 because most Chinese students believed there were fewer opportunities at home.
He added that the situation today is starkly different, pointing out how overseas recruitment drives have intensified and there are now many sites such as CareerFrog and Zhilian Recruitment that teach overseas students how to find a job in China.
According to the CCG report, more than 11.9 percent of returnees opted to start their own business in 2016, an increase from the 2.7 percent in 2015.
Wang Yi, who graduated from Syracuse University in the US in 2010 with a master's degree in electrical engineering, said she decided to start her own fashion design studio in Beijing as she found that the local market was filled with opportunities. Chinese consumers today have also become more receptive to domestic designers and brands compared to previous years, she added.
"Foreign markets may be mature and stable but there are a lot more opportunities in China as the country is still rapidly growing. Most designers I know are returnees. Their businesses include buyers shops, integration stores and e-commerce platforms," she said.
In contrast, Wang Ze started his business in the US before discovering that the Chinese market had more potential. The 26-year-old started his flower company in Delaware after graduating from Temple University in 2015. His flowers are imported from Japan and Germany. He also has an office in Shanghai where the boxes and packaging materials are sourced from.
At the beginning, his flowers were mostly bought by fellow Chinese students studying in the US. But he soon realized that many of his customers were actually from China. Despite a lack of advertisements or publicity, Wang managed to sell 500 boxes of flowers in China on Valentine's Day.
"The number of 500 boxes is not big, but it shows how Chinese consumers have a much stronger purchasing power than US consumers in this market. I will probably move my office to Shanghai soon," he said.
He Qi contributed to this story.