Editor's note: China's rapid economic and social development, along with rising racism and economic woes in the West, has been prompting an increasing number of Chinese overseas students to return home in search of better career prospects, writes a veteran journalist with China Daily.
Chinese students attend the graduation ceremony at the Columbia University in New York in May, 2019. (WANG YING / XINHUA)
Statistics show that more than 1 million students studying abroad returned to China last year, a sharp increase from 777,000 the previous year. Although the COVID-19 pandemic which brought the world to a standstill and disrupted their studies overseas is said to be the main reason for the increasing number of overseas students returning to China, it should be noted that the "return home movement" has been popular among Chinese students for the past decade or so.
Two figures prove the trend: while about 134,800 overseas Chinese students returned home in 2010, the number increased to 580,300 in 2019, just before the pandemic broke out, in search of better career prospects.
The main reason they do so, according to many of the studies, is because they are optimistic about the country’s future development and believe they have better career prospects in China
China began sending a small number of teenagers to Western countries to study science and technology during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) rule. That arrangement came to a halt with the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 when many Western countries imposed multifarious sanctions on China.
And although China managed to send thousands of students abroad－to the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries－in the 1950s, that arrangement too came to an end with the souring of Sino-Soviet ties. For the next couple of decades, few, if any, students were able to study abroad.
With the formalization of relationship between China and the United States, Chinese students again got access to Western education. In 1978, a year before China and the US formally established diplomatic relations, about 800 students travelled abroad for higher education, mostly to the US.
Since then the number of Chinese students going abroad for higher studies has increased with each passing year. Now, each year, about 700,000 students choose to study overseas.
Unlike the 1970s and 1980s when almost all the students were sponsored by the government or their respective company to study abroad, most of the students seeking higher education overseas today are sponsored by their parents or are self-financed thanks to country's rapid economic development which has enabled millions of families to pay for their children's foreign education. While the government- and enterprise-sponsored students were obligated to return home to serve the country or their company, family-sponsored or self-financed students are free to decide whether they want to return home or seek a career abroad.
Many studies have been conducted to identify the reasons why about 80 percent of overseas students now choose to return to China. The main reason they do so, according to many of the studies, is because they are optimistic about the country's future development and believe they have better career prospects in China.
They have little doubt that China will become the world's largest economy in the near future. And China's rapid economic development and good governance have convinced students that the country will be able to realize its dream of national rejuvenation within a few decades. The students are also eager to contribute to China's further progress, which in turn will improve their career prospects and help them live a better life.
Some Chinese students are returning home after completing their higher studies overseas also because racism, including violence and hatred against Asians or people of Asian descent, is on the rise in many Western countries. Worse, some Western universities, especially in the United States, have banned Chinese students from studying certain subjects, and in some extreme cases, some Chinese students were forced to leave the campus before they could complete their course and a number of Chinese scientists were investigated for being allegedly involved in conspiracy or spying.
Such discrimination and racism compelled many Chinese students, who may have planned to develop a career in the countries where they were studying or had completed their higher studies, to rethink their decision. The ongoing energy and food crises, increasing unemployment and rising inflation could have been another factor that prompted many Chinese overseas students to return home in search of a better career.
The author is former deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily.