Against the Tide

Chinese 'sea turtles' leave the U.S. with advanced degrees and become 'seaweed'

| January / February 2006


China's red-hot economy and burgeoning Western-style modernity have been luring the Chinese diaspora back to the homeland. By the end of 2004, more than 190,000 who went abroad to live, work, and, in many cases, earn advanced degrees, have returned to China. The Chinese press has dubbed them hai gui, which means both 'overseas returnees' and 'sea turtles.'

The Chinese government encourages the trend, luring entrepreneurs, scholars, and scientists back home with subsidies and tax incentives to help speed the nation's capitalist renovation. Likewise, stronger job prospects entice some midcareer professionals who were bumping against glass ceilings overseas.

For younger, less-experienced returnees, the quest for gigs with big firms can be trying. An influx of hai gui holding business and information technology degrees, added to the 3.4 million graduates China's universities produced last year, has created a glut of well-educated applicants, inciting fierce competition for the few positions available. These frustrating realities have forced many to adjust their expectations and accept significantly lower pay, and the Chinese government is worried their reduced circumstances might cause them to leave.

Homegrown candidates, moreover, attuned to new developments in the country's ever-changing marketplace and to Chinese business culture, have a leg up over recent returnees educated abroad. Western universities, according to Toronto's Globe and Mail (Oct. 29, 2005), teach students to be outspoken, confident, and independent, but in Chinese workplaces that stress modesty and collectivity, such traits are out of place. The sea turtles' struggle to find jobs has inspired the Chinese media to give out-of-work hai gui a new handle: hai dai, or 'seaweed' -- a pun on the Mandarin phrase for 'job-waiting returnee.'