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Local attraction: young Chinese no longer staying overseas after graduating from foreign universities

Local attraction: young Chinese no longer staying overseas after graduating from foreign universities

Originally published at the South China Morning Post on September 22, 2015.

The chance to work at a Silicon Valley start-up and snag a work visa used to be the ideal dream for Chinese citizens who graduated from universities overseas. But an increasing number now opt for a different path – a better start back home.

As Beijing pours more money into spurring innovation, the number of Chinese students returning to the mainland to work after studying abroad has steadily increased, with many citing more attractive jobs offers and an improved environment for entrepreneurship as the main reasons for their ticket back to China.

“I feel like there are many more opportunities in China because the internet is still booming and there are many open areas that need to be worked on,” said Orion Zhao Oulun, a 24-year-old returnee. “The market in the US is much more saturated.”

Originally from Beijing, Zhao graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley. He obtained a H1B work visa – which foreigners need to work for an American firm – for a software engineer position at a Silicon Valley start-up. But Zhao this year decided to move back to China and start his own company.

At first, he was unsure about whether he wanted to return home after completing his degree. But he was swayed by the better climate for entrepreneurs on the mainland and the greater number of positions, he said.

He now runs Moka, a start-up that streamlines recruitment processes.

“If you just graduated … and you join a start-up in Silicon Valley, you’re probably just a software engineer [at the junior level]. But come back here and you might have a shot at becoming a senior engineer,” Zhao said.

The number of Chinese going overseas to study and the number coming back has been steadily increasing in recent years. According to the Beijing-based think tank Centre for China and Globalisation, about 284,700 students headed overseas to study in 2010, while about 108,300 returned for work – less than 40 per cent. Last year, 459,800 headed out, while about 364,800 came back – a return rate of 79 per cent.

Beijing is encouraging entrepreneurship to create new drivers of growth in science and technology amid the wider economic restructuring.

Earlier this month, the government announced plans to set up at least eight new pilot zones to foster innovation.

Stephen Wu, a Shanghai-based director at Spring Professional, a recruiting firm in Asia, said the main reason graduates in engineering or IT were coming back was the internet and technology boom, particularly in the smartphone market.

But some students were also finding it difficult to obtain work abroad, he added.

“Ten years ago, students went abroad to study with the initial intention [to not] come back. But now you look at the young students – they want to come back because the China economy grows so fast,” Wu said.

Efforts to attract local talent back to China include government subsidies for senior-level positions.

Aside from being offered higher paying jobs, overseas returnees also enjoy an easier process to apply for hukou, or local household registration system – after finding a job, he said.

Although the rate of returnees has increased, people who stay abroad for more than five years are more likely to remain overseas, the centre found earlier. About half of those who had stayed abroad for fewer than five years said they were willing to return home. But for those who were past the five year mark, the figure fell to about 30 per cent.

Michael Zhang, who obtained a doctorate in applied physics from Stanford University in 2012, decided not to return upon graduation. He remained in California, working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. He currently lives in Singapore, where he’s employed by taxi-booking app GrabTaxi.  

Zhang said he chose to stay abroad where there was a greater premium on talent and the regulatory environment was better established. Other considerations included a better quality of life and less air pollution.

“In the US, say you want to found a company – I know exactly what to do. All these things are set up for you to succeed,” Zhang said.

But back home, "you hear stories” about entrepreneurs getting financial support and inflating the value of their company to boost its image.

There was less transparency on the mainland and more emphasis on personal connections than pure talent, he said.

“It’s like government relationships ... back channels. It’s very opaque,” Zhang said. “For friends with a solid background because of their dad and mum, it makes sense for them to go home. But for me, [I’m] coming from a family that doesn’t have that kind of roots.”

Mao Rui, an associate professor of computer science and software at Shenzhen University and an overseas returnee, said the infrastructure for research and government regulations were not as effective on the mainland compared to the US, but he’s optimistic about the future.

“Fortunately, it’s improving every year,” said Mao, who couldn’t find a job abroad. “The job market in China keeps getting better.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Overseas graduates like look of home

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