Against the Tide

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
(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

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