China’s Overseas Students - Changing China with Worldwide Talent

Like the ebb and flow of a massive tide, China’s students are surging out of the country to study abroad and returning from all over the world; both on a grand scale never witnessed by the country before. While pursuing their own goals and aspirations, this influx of new talent also helps to fuel the nation’s rise and development, improving the international community’s understanding of China while simultaneously propelling China further into the world community.

(Source: shutterstock)


Today, with students studying all over the world, China’s population of overseas students is the highest of all countries. According to data from the Ministry of Education (教育部), over 600,000 students left the country to study abroad in 2017 alone, reaching a historical peak.


This massive outflow, first unleashed when the nation reformed and opened-up, is only matched by the equally unstoppable tide of those returning after their studies. While pursuing their own goals and aspirations, these overseas returnees are helping to fuel the nation’s rise and development. Over the past 40 years, these “haigui” (the Chinese term for those returning to work in China after studying abroad, 海歸) have made impressive contributions to the nation in areas and projects such as computer science, the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) and quantum communication, injecting new lifeblood into the nation’s innovative scene.


Starting small - the first 52 students dispatched to the United States


China’s overseas students both benefit from and drive the country’s reform and opening-up process. It all began on June 23, 1978, at a time when reform and opening-up had just started. Upon hearing a report by the Ministry of Education about the work of Tsinghua University (清華大學), Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) declared, “I am in favour of increasing the number of students we send abroad by the thousands or tens of thousands, not just a handful... it is one way by which we can raise the standards of our country’s scientific education quickly, with results we can see within five years.”


This important speech about expanding the number of students sent abroad generated a level of excitement akin to that brought on by the re-introduction of the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (the college entrance examination, gaokao高考) for it opened the doors for education abroad. On July 11, 1978, the Ministry of Education submitted to the Central Government a proposal on increasing the number of students to be selected and sent overseas. On December 26 of the same year, the first batch of students selected for overseas studies, 52 in total, were bound for the United States. “Study hard and return after you have acquired the knowledge to serve our motherland,” Deng Xiaoping told them.


The study abroad trend grew quickly: By 1981, the Chinese Government had reached agreements to allow the exchange of students with a number of countries including the United Kingdom, Egypt, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan, the Federal Republic of Germany, France and Belgium.


The same year saw the introduction of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) into China. It was administered in China for the first time in December and took place simultaneously in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, with 732 test takers. On that note, an interesting piece of trivia was that the pencils, erasers and pencil sharpeners used by the test takers were all shipped from the United States along with the test papers.


It was a test of many firsts for Mainland China: its first standardized test introduced from the United States, its first test that made use of machine-read answer cards, its first English listening test... and so on, so much so that that Mainland China’s own National Higher Education Examination later used the TOEFL mode as a reference when reforming its own examination system.


To most people back then, studying abroad was still no simple feat. In 1984, the State Council issued Temporary Provisions of Going Abroad for Self-Funded Students (關於自費出國留學的暫行規定),  offering an additional avenue for those who wished to study abroad. However, hampered by information asymmetry, cumbersome procedures, financial limitations and other difficulties, the number of people who managed to study abroad at their own expense were few. Then in 1985 the country abolished the policy of Verifying the Qualifications of Self-Funded Students Applying for Overseas Study (自費出國留學資格審核). The effect was immediate and profound: prior to 1984, the number of self-funded overseas students had amounted to 1,000 per year; this figure ballooned to 10,000 in 1986, and further increased 10-fold in 1987, with a cumulative total exceeding 100,000. With the introduction of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) to China in 1989, the study-abroad mania gripping the nation rose to fever pitch. Since 2000, those who study overseas at their own expense have accounted for around 80 percent to 93 percent of the total number of overseas students.


An invitation to return and play a role


Back in the 1990s, when Mainland China was talent-starved, every sector was in dire need of talent - and lots of it - to help it develop. Deng Xiaoping had repeatedly expressed his wish that  the overseas students would return to  China, “I hope all who have gone overseas to study will return home; regardless of what their political views may have been in the past, they may come back, and we’ll make suitable arrangements for them. This is a policy we will never change. Let it be known that if they would like to contribute to the motherland, then it’s best to come back.”


This guiding principle of “support studying abroad, encourage homecoming, allow free movement“ was written into the papers of the Third Plenary Session of the 14th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in 1993.


From the 1980s onwards, the Ministry of Education established a number of awards and programmes to encourage the nation’s overseas talents to return. These include the Fok Ying Tung Foundation for Young Teachers (霍英東青年教師基金和教師獎), the Scientific Research Foundation for the Returned Overseas Chinese Scholars (留學回國人員科研啟動基金), the Programme for New Century Excellent Talents in University (跨世紀優秀人才培養計劃), the Spring Sunshine Plan (春暉計劃), the Cheung Kong Scholars Programme (長江學者獎勵計劃), and a project to enable overseas talents to return to work in China during sabbatical leave (海外留學人才學術休假回國工作項目). Other government departments have established similar programmes to persuade overseas scholars to return to China to pursue their careers. They include the Hundred, Thousand and Ten Thousand Talents Plan (百千萬人才工程) of the Ministry of Personnel (人事部) the Hundred Talents Programme (百人計劃) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (中科院), as well as the National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scholars (國家傑出青年科學基金) and the Thousand Talents Plan (千人計劃) of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (國家自然科學基金委).


When asked why he had returned to China, Zhou Xiaohua (周曉華), who was selected by the Thousand Talents Plan, said, “As a beneficiary of the country’s opening-up policy, I’ve always wanted to do something for my motherland in return.”


Indeed, the overseas returnees have formed the foundation on which the nation’s rapid development in this era has been built by virtue of the outstanding contributions they have made in the fields of economics, technology, sociology, education, arts and more; not one field has been left untouched by their efforts. Wan Gang (萬鋼), the former Minister of Science and Technology, is one such returnee-turned-leader. Following his graduation from the Clausthal University of Technology in Germany with a doctoral degree, he spent the next 10 years working for the Audi Corporation. In December 2000, Wan Gang returned to Tongji University (同濟大學) in China. He started out as an ordinary professor and rose rapidly through the ranks to become the President of Tongji in 2004. In 2007, Wan Gang became the Minister of Science and Technology. When his term ended in 2018, he went on to serve as chairman of the China Association for Science and Technology (中國科學技術協會).


Talent is the key to scientific and technological innovation. Many of the best and brightest who left to study abroad have become distinguished leaders in their respective academic fields and world-renowned experts; Shi Yigong (施一公) in the field of structural biophysics, Wang Yifang (王貽芳) in high-energy physics, Gan Zhongxue (甘中學) in artificial intelligence, Ding Lieming (丁列明) in pharmaceutical innovation. By returning to China, they have made significant contributions that have accelerated the development of various fields. Data has shown that 81 percent of the members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, 51 percent of the members of the Chinese Academy of Engineering (中國工程院) and 72 percent of the leaders of the key academic fields have studied abroad.


Study abroad - the rush there and back again


While studying abroad may have been a dream of an elite few back in the 1980s, it is a hot topic nowadays amongst the common people and is set to get hotter. Yet the underlying mindset and social context of the exodus has been changing quietly.  On the one hand, the study abroad trend highlights the difference between Chinese and foreign educational approaches, and offers a choice to students and parents seeking a different educational mode; on the other hand, for increasingly well-off Chinese families, sending children abroad - whether they are academically adept or not - is no longer an impossible dream.


In 2017, China’s population of overseas students worldwide exceeded 600,000, and constituted the largest share of foreign students in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.



Now possessing greater freedom - and means - to study abroad in the new century, how do Chinese students decide on a course of action? Which countries are in vogue, and what are the most sought-after fields of study? After graduating, how do they decide whether to stay overseas or return home for a career?


According to a survey conducted by U.S.News, in 2016, the United States was the top study-abroad destination, chosen by 260,000 Chinese students. This was followed by Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. Major factors are taken into account by students when deciding on a destination including: the global influence of the host nation, its diversity of academic programmes, and how advanced its professional fields are thought to be.



In terms of degree levels, the Ministry of Education’s data shows that 70 percent of those leaving the country for overseas studies in 2016 were pursuing bachelor, master or doctoral degrees (with bachelor programme students accounting for 30.56 percent and master and doctoral degree students accounting for 35.51 percent). An increasing number of families, having become affluent ahead of their peers, are vying to send their children abroad at ever-younger ages. In 2016, over 30,000 Chinese families sent their minors to the United States to study in high schools, in the hope that they would get into college more easily in the United States.


When it comes to fields of study, let’s use the Chinese overseas students in the United States as an example: according to a 2015/16 report published in the United States called Open Doors, which surveyed 328,000 Chinese overseas students in the United States, the most sought-after fields were Business Management, Engineering and Computer Science.

(Data source: 2015/16 Open Doors, Report by the Institute of International Education, the United States )


Simultaneously, beckoning with its ever-increasing economic opportunities and the mobile internet startup boom, Mainland China is now attracting a massive wave of returning talents on an unprecedented scale since 1949. In 2016, 433,000 overseas students returned to China. By contrast, in 2003 the figure was only 20,000. Wang Huiyao (王輝耀), Vice Chairman of the Western Returned Scholars Association (中國歐美同學會), commented on the trend as follows, “Today, we are in a golden age of entrepreneurship as China becomes fully integrated into the international community. This is the perfect time for overseas students to return and turn their talents into businesses, a time literally made for them to shine through their own ventures.”


According to data published by the Ministry of Education, the number of overseas returnees has been growing steadily from 1978 to the end of 2017, with a clear trend of high-level talent returning. Among all overseas students who left China to study overseas during that period, a total of 3.13 million people - accounting for 83.73 percent of the total number of those who have graduated - chose to return to China for a career after their studies. 



“I was afraid I might be too late if I didn’t come back. I don’t want to be an onlooker while my motherland is developing.” In 2012, Yuan Junhua (袁軍華), selected by the Thousand Young Talents Plan (「千人計劃」青年項目) left his postdoctoral work at Harvard University and returned to the University of Science and Technology of China (中國科學技術大學) located in Hefei (合肥). Two years later, his spouse and fellow alumnus of California Institute of Technology, Zhang Rongjing (張榕京), also returned to China.


Studying abroad is an important way to develop global talent, and talent is the bulwark of an innovation-driven nation. China's vast market and rising power are attracting overseas returnees like a magnet, and providing a spacious stage on which they can deploy the advanced technological knowledge they have mastered. This ushers China further into the global community while simultaneously improving the international community’s understanding of China.




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Report on U.S. High Schools: Slowing Growth in Enrolment of Chinese Overseas High School (美國高中報告:中國學生高中留學趨勢變緩) (搜狐網) Sept. 7 2017

Overseas Students’ Forty-Year Journey Towards a Mighty Nation (四十年,留學人的強國路) July 31, 2018

Newly Founded China Dispatches First Batch of 52 Students to Study in the United States - A Record (新中國首批52名公派留美人員出國紀實) (大河網)  Dec. 8, 2011

30 Years of TOEFL Test in China (托福進入中國30年) (新浪網) Dec. 17 2008

The 1990s: Sharp Increase in Self-Funded Overseas Students, Now Accounting for Majority of Study Away Population (90年代:自費留學大軍直線上升 成留學主力) Tianjin Daily (天津日報) Sept. 23, 2009

Annual Report on the Development of Chinese Studying Abroad 2017 (2017中國留學發展報告) Centre for China and Globalization (全球化智庫)

China Ushers in Biggest Wave of Overseas Returnees Ever (中國迎來最大「海歸潮」) (人民網) Sept. 11, 2017

Open Doors 2015/2016. IIE.

The Overseas Returnees’ Dream, The China Dream - What the Biggest Wave Ever of Returning Overseas Talent Portends (海歸夢,中國夢——中國最大留學人才「歸國潮」啟示錄) (新華網) Nov. 6, 2017

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