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Title: The Return of the Sea Turtles: An Analysis on Chinese Student Migration since the 1850s
Authors: Ren, Harvey
Advisors: Tienda, Marta
Department: Woodrow Wilson School
Class Year: 2015
Abstract: This thesis explores the evolution of Chinese student migration since the 1850s in the context of brain drain, international education, and Chinese historical developments. Students serve as important conduits for information transfer since they bring technology, ideas, scientific knowledge and academic expertise back home. Therefore, it is imperative to gain a better understanding of the push and pull factors driving Chinese students abroad and causing them to return home. Additionally, with the influx of foreign capital investments into China, increasing number of Chinese companies seeking to expand their international operation, and China’s ambition to become a center for innovation, the ability to attract and retain Chinese returnees is an urgent concern for affected Chinese stakeholders. Combined with a rapidly shifting demographics and an aging population as result of China’s One Child Policy, there is a strong demand for Chinese returnees to stimulate China’s economic growth. As China goes through its demographics changes, it can no longer rely on an export-oriented economy, driven by cheap labor. While China produces seven million annual college graduates, business analysts view them as inadequate to work in China’s increasingly globalized economy. Instead, it must rely on innovative overseas talent to compete in the 21st century. Since the 1850s, three million Chinese students have gone abroad to study at institution of higher education. In 2013, 413,900 Chinese students went abroad to study at foreign universities, compared to 10,742 students in 1993. This increasing trend has raised concern among Chinese policymakers of a potential brain drain. In 2007, the Chinese Academy of Science raised the alarm of brain drain claiming that a large proportion of students are not returning home. From 1980 to 2013, while 2.9 million Chinese students went abroad, only 1.4 million students have returned to China, yielding a return rate of 48 percent. A review of literature and Chinese student migration data indicates that while China did suffer a high non-return rate from the 1990s to early 2000s, the overwhelming majority of Chinese students have returned home. China’s economic and political conditions have largely influenced how students migrated abroad and returned home. Chinese student migration began in the 1850s as a result of a necessity to repel foreign invaders, it increased after 1979 due to the desperate need for modernization, and it exponentially grew in the 2000s due to China’s rise as an economic power. In all of these cases, upon graduation or a few years thereafter, Chinese returnees migrated back home. Instead of brain drain, Chinese student migration exemplifies the concept of brain circulation. My analysis of the migration data indicates that about 80 percent of Chinese students end up returning in the long run. Chinese returnees, commonly refer to as haigui—with the literal Chinese translation meaning sea turtles—have revolutionized, modernized, and globalized China. This paper reviews the historical developments of China since the 1850s, look at the contributions of Chinese returnees in a political and economic context, addresses some of the challenges that returnees currently face, and analyze the policy implications resulting from evolving trends in Chinese student migration.
Extent: 101 pages
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: en_US
Appears in Collections:Woodrow Wilson School, 1929-2016

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