A rapid exodus of university students from China in recent years could herald a more permanent brain drain, as the more privileged sectors of society seek to keep their options open in the face of growing uncertainty about the future, experts said Friday.
As China's leadership gears up for a key policy meeting this week where economic reforms, not political change, will be the focus, the ruling Chinese Communist Party presides over a country in which the richest and most-powerful are quietly leaving.
Chinese students currently represent the largest group of international students enrolled in U.S. universities, census figures show, reaching a total of nearly 200,000 during the 2011/12 academic year.
"One factor [behind this] is political," U.S.-based scholar and rights activist Liu Qing said. "Many of the people who are able to send their sons and daughters to study overseas are officials."
"On the one hand, they are doing this to leave themselves an escape route, but they can also use their children and relatives abroad as a channel to send their corrupt earnings [overseas]," he said.
Families are now starting to send their children overseas at younger and younger ages, figures show.
According to the U.S.-based Institute of International Education, there are signs that more and more Chinese students are enrolling to take their first degrees, rather than study at graduate level as was previously the norm.
There was a rise of more than 30 percent in the number of students from China enrolled as undergraduates in U.S. universities in 2011/12, the Institute said.
An uncertain future
Wu Fan, editor in chief of the overseas Chinese-language magazine Chinese Affairs, said another factor was the huge level of competition for university places, and a poor outlook for graduates in the labor market.
Nearly 7 million Chinese graduated from university this year - a rise of 190,000 compared with last year, putting even more pressure on job-seekers.
"Their aim in studying overseas is to leave China [for good]," Wu said. "This is an overall trend in how the rich [and powerful] in China move their assets and their relatives around."
"Currently, the trend is that more are leaving China than are going back there."
Liu said some officials feared a possible change in their political fortunes, and were uncertain what the future might bring.
"For example, how long will the party stay in power for?" he said. "Another thing is that their personal power relies on the power of a political faction, and if that faction were to fall, they could be pursued for corruption."
"It doesn't matter how corrupt they are; no one will pursue them if their faction hasn't lost power."
Liu said overseas study was also viewed as a route to leave China altogether by those who had money, but lacked political power or influence.
"Those people think that China's economy isn't stable."
According to Wu, growing environmental pollution and concerns over the safety of food, air and water, are also driving young Chinese away.
"The environment is getting worse; the food is poisoned, and there are other problems like that," he said. "That's why they immediately think to send their children overseas to study, as soon as they get a bit of money in their hand."
Chinese education officials expect that 450,000 Chinese will go overseas for education this year, with the U.S. remaining the most popular destination, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, the number of students taking China's college entrance exam fell this year, for the fifth year in a row.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.