Are Chinese Students Going Home?

Some enjoy new freedoms and opportunities, others want to return.

Chinese President Hu Jintao (center right) visits students at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago, Jan. 21, 2011.

Faced with fierce competition for university places at home, Chinese students are increasingly moving overseas to get their higher education.

Government figures estimate that a total of 229,300 Chinese students were studying abroad during the 2009-2010 academic year, an increase of 30 percent over the previous year.

Many invest huge amounts of time and money in leaving the country, rather than face the huge strain of competing with millions of others for Chinese university places.

On graduation, some want to use their new skills and experience to enter the rapidly growing middle class back in China, while others say they greatly prefer the stability of life in developed Western countries.

One student surnamed Cai, who is currently in Germany studying for a master's degree in microsystems engineering, said he is unlikely to return to his home country on graduation.

"I am unhappy with the political situation in China at the moment," Cai said. "There is no democratic power in China at the moment, and there are many aspects of life in China at the moment which cannot be guaranteed."

Cai cited the high level of social injustice caused by the concentration of political power as the main reason he has no plans to return.

"I plan to stay in Germany, because here you have protection for freedom of speech and everyone here has the right to vote."

"I can enjoy many of the rights of a citizen even though I am not a citizen [of Germany]. In China, I don't get those rights even though I am a citizen."

'I want to go back'

A U.S.-based Chinese student doing a research degree in town planning said he would definitely return home, however, on completion of his degree.

"I want to go back to China, because Chinese cities are developing so rapidly right now," the student, who identified himself only as Steven, said.

"There are two main factors influencing the 21st century right now: China's urbanization and technological development in the United States," he said. "If I could use the latter to ... help the former, then that would be very meaningful [for me]."

He said Chinese people work longer hours for less money than their counterparts in the United States.

"But I can manage that [because] China will give me invaluable experience," Steven said. "I also hope to have some impact on Chinese society, and to help improve it."

An information science expert surnamed Li, who has been in the U.S. for nearly two decades, said he has never wanted to go home since he arrived as a young student.

"I always planned to stay here," Li said. "Here, I can have the life that I wanted to have. I like the stability of life here and the greater level of social justice."

In the U.S., Li said, he is able to improve his own life through his own efforts, something that would have been far less likely if he had stayed in China.

"I feel relaxed and at peace living in America," Li said. "It would be hard to feel that in Chinese society."

He said he believes many of his compatriots feel the same way. "I think a lot of people will be able to find the life they want in the U.S.," he said.

Hard to fit in?

But not all share Li's view. A student surnamed Qian from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, and currently studying in New York City, said he is sure he will go home because he misses it so much.

"After I got to America, I found myself really missing China," Qian said. "I can communicate with people here, but it's hard for me to be a part of this society."

"People here have been educated differently, and they think differently from me," said Qian, who is studying radar and communications technology.

"China has just launched its Beidou satellite, and I want to go back so I can contribute to China's technological development," he said, adding that the financial crisis has put a freeze on funding for research in the U.S.

Finance student William, whose hometown is Shanghai, said he will stay in the United States if he manages to find a job in finance after graduating next year.

"I would like to work here for a while, and then go back to China when I have some experience," he said.

But he said he has no worries about his future. "It's pretty easy to find a job in China, and there is a great need for people with my specialty," William said.

He said he has learned to think more critically as a result of his time in the U.S., and that he appreciates the political system. "Here, you have the law to rely on," he said.

"Back home, they haven't really done enough on this front. For example, there is a huge outstanding issue with food safety."

But he said there isn't enough difference between the two systems to make him want to leave China forever.

"The U.S. is a bit better than China on the question of freedom of speech," he said. "But you don't have absolute freedom of speech in the U.S. The government still filters out a lot of things that don't benefit them."

Trouble readjusting

Meanwhile, students who do go back to China after studying overseas have reported trouble readjusting to life in their homeland.

"It took me about six months to get used to things after I came back to China," said a Shenzhen-based computer science graduate surnamed Pang.

"The biggest culture shock for me was the level of courtesy and manners which people showed to each other."

"I had already got used to speaking very politely in England, but I gradually forgot all about that when I got back to China," Pang said. "Actually, I like England a bit better, because it's a more cultivated environment with strong moral values."

But he said he doesn't regret returning home. "There are a lot of challenges here because of the pace of development," he said.

Legal expert "Richard" said he had experienced something similar on his return to China in 2003 after eight years of study in Canada.

"Returning students need to get used ... to the way things are done in China," he said. "You can't rely on what you learned overseas."

Richard said he believes that an overseas education isn't essential for success in China.

"If you really have talent, you'll do well wherever you go," he said. "China really needs talent, not just people who have studied overseas."

The number of Chinese students leaving the country for overseas universities has risen by an average annual rate of 20 percent since 2000, experts said, adding that the figure is projected to rise to at least 550,000 by 2014.

Reported by Hua Sheng for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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