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Success and confusion: The lives of overseas returnees
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"The term 'overseas returnees' will disappear after 20 years," said Yang Zhuang, the American Dean of Beijing International MBA (BiMBA) and associate professor at the Business School of Fordham University. He was speaking at the 4th Western Returnees Beijing Forum 2007 (WRBF) with the theme "New returnees, new missions."

The latest 2007 Ministry of Education data shows that from 1978 to 2006, a total of 1.067 million Chinese went abroad and 275,000 returned to China; 42,000 returned in 2006 alone. Some have already fulfilled their dreams, some are exploring their options, and others are lost in confusion.

According to David Zweig, Director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, China and India see the largest population of oversees returnees. He believes that they are a special group that only exists during a specific period of time when a nation's economic development increases the need for skilled workers.

There is no such term in the United States, Canada, or Europe, Zweig told China Economy weekly, because in those cultures it is quite normal for a person to study abroad and then go back to his motherland. With the advancement of the Chinese education system, he believes an increasing number of people will go abroad and then return.

Successful returnees

While addressing the WRBF, Hu Zuliu, investment partner and managing director at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., said: "With industrialization, urbanization, the prosperity of private economy, and the expansion of international trade, China has become one of the fastest growing economies. These provide unprecedented opportunities for returnees."

The successful returnees refer to those engaged in business and trade traveling back and forth between China and other countries. They tend to be highly mobile because their businesses span continents and generally involve two or more nations. They have become the vanguards in the process of China's internationalization and those appearing on various wealth lists.

The study of their background and experiences shows that they share following common characteristics: they graduate from top universities at home to build a solid foundation for their future development; they further their education in world famous universities abroad and acquire a masters degree or higher; their research fields are new economy, high-tech, and third industry; and, they all have high-level management experience at multinational corporations or foreign-funded enterprises.

Enterprising returnees

Enterprising returnees refer to the relatively young returnees. A survey conducted by the Innovation and Development Forum 2006 for Returned Chinese Students shows that this group of returnees on average went abroad at 26 and came home at 32. They studied for 5 years and worked for 3.1 years abroad, generally working while studying. They currently engage in consultation, third industry, and culture and media in foreign enterprises, foreign-funded enterprises or pioneering parks for overseas returnees. Their annual salary is about 60,000-120,000 yuan.

Frank returned from Australia and is now the manager of the overseas department at a large state-owned enterprise. Though he has given up the chance to become a permanent Australian citizen, he is very satisfied with his present job and feels he made the right decision. After four years of work with the company, he has his own house and car, and lives a higher quality life compared to his schoolmates who chose to stay in Australia.

"When I decided to come back, my family and friends did not think it a wise decision. But I was determined to come back. Though I obtained an IT masters degree, due to the lack of experience, it would be very difficult for me to be accepted by a big company in Australia. Additionally, it is difficult to enter into mainstream society and that is the destiny of the first generation of immigrants. One can't change his destiny unless a very good opportunity arises, so I decided I'd rather come back to China," Frank said when interviewed by China Economy.

Jobless returnees

About 47,000 overseas Chinese students came back home in 2006, and according to recent statistics gathered randomly from 1,500 returnees by the World Human Resource Lab, 35 percent find it difficult to obtain a job and 40 percent feel they might be in the wrong business.

Deng Feng, founding managing director and partner of the Northern Light Venture Capital, said when visiting the Sina Chat Rooms on October 26, "As a 'returnee' it only means you have been abroad for a period of time. 3 months of staying abroad and 30 years are definitely not the same."

Jobless returnees are usually quite young and have been studying abroad for a short period of time with no working experience at all. Due to their lack of experience, their job hunts meet with a lot of setbacks.

Ray has been out of work for a year since he came back home. He studied chemical materials at a local university and then went on to study accountancy in the United Kingdom even though he had no interest in the subject. After coming back home he found that it was not easy to find a job.

"Those who acquire a bachelor's degree at home and a master's degree abroad are unable to find a job in one to two years after returning to China. We are discriminated against by some domestic businesses," Ray told China Economy. "One of my schoolmates sent his resume to a company, but when they learned that he was a returnee they refused to accept it. Even worse, at a recent recruitment fair for returnees, a Beijing planting company offered a salary of 2,500 yuan per month. Despite our huge investments in education, we cannot survive in Beijing with such a low salary!" He said he would stay at home preparing for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) examination rather than be frowned upon at interviews. He believes that he can change his present condition after obtaining some qualification certificates.

Wang Huiyao (Henry), Vice Chairman of China Western Returned Scholars Association collected the materials of 300 returnees who have successfully opened their own businesses. He studied their resumes and found out that these people all have more than 5 years of working experience abroad. He believes that returnees who cannot find jobs have their own problems. Those who acquired a one-year degree or who went abroad after graduating from universities are fairly the same with the graduates from domestic universities: they both lack working experience. In addition, some returnees have to learn to adapt to the domestic environment. High expectations coupled with their lack of relationships turn them into jobless returnees.

Lost in dilemma

A new group of oversea Chinese students has recently emerged. They have already or nearly finished their studies abroad, and though they want to seek future development back in their homeland, they are not very clear about the situation back in China. Therefore, they are unsure as to whether to come back or stay abroad.

Elyse obtained her master's degree eight months ago in France. She currently spends seven hours a day selling perfume at a store and two hours teaching languages. She remarked helplessly, "I can earn 1,200 euro per month as a saleswoman. If I come back home, I am not able to earn so much money. But my parents are both intellectuals and they would not allow me to do this kind of job abroad. Moreover, France is a non-immigration country so it is difficult to decide to whether to stay or leave."

Xu Xiaoping, Vice President of the Beijing New Oriental School, believes that people go to study abroad for three purposes: to improve their competitive capacity, leading ability in industries, and general leading capacity. To gain competitive capacity is the lowest objective for the students studying abroad.

With the fast-growing economy and improved domestic education, homegrown graduates gradually catch up with returnees in the competition for jobs. Many universities and research institutes educate large numbers of excellent students who have become great challenges to returnees.

"More and more people opt to return to their motherland and teachers at home become better and better accordingly. The better the teachers, the better the students," noted David Zweig.

Li Qingyuan, Director-General of the Research Center of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), spoke frankly: "The gap between the 'returnees' (oversees trained doctors) and 'homegrown scholars' (domestically educated doctors) has been greatly narrowed. Therefore, it is not necessary to separate returnees from their homegrown counterparts."

( by Zhang Ming'ai, November 19, 2007)

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