By: Edwin Fuller
Founder and President of Laguna Strategic Advisors

So, what do sea turtles and China’s economic prowess have to do with the rest of us anyway? … Plenty! It’s time that we take notice and welcome the sea turtle presence among us.

Since 1978, more than 2.6 million Chinese students have gone abroad to study and America’s elite universities and colleges have ranked among their top choices. Last year alone, these institutions claimed more than half of the 400,000 Chinese students who went abroad – positioning China as the top sender of international students to this country for the fourth consecutive year, beating out Japan, India and South Korea. China’s Ministry of Education reports that about half of these students return and, over the years, have made a huge difference in the country and to its people. They point out that whereas earlier returnees such as Jiang Zemin and Li Peng revolutionized China, todays are globalizing the country.

In today’s China, these returning students are often referred to as Hǎiguī, or “Sea Turtle,” a term that means a returnee to China who has studied or worked overseas. They have long been applauded for bringing back advanced skills. They are well-educated, young, hold degrees from foreign universities, often in the sciences, and they represent the brains China needs to power its continued growth.

Sea turtles are not a new Chinese phenomenon. Some 1,300 years ago, imperial China sought out the best and brightest people to become its civil servants. For centuries, these Mandarins ran the world’s most advanced government of that time. The modern-day tide began with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and each wave of returning scholars since then has left its imprint on the industrial or political life of the country. The present wave is by far and away the largest and has the potential to have the most impact on the future political and economic life of the country.

Once back home in China, today’s returned students find opportunities especially in the Internet sector. Others find places in local divisions of multinational firms. If they are returning top scientists, they can participate in a Chinese government program called the 1,000 Plan that provides financial aid and assistance. If they want to start their own companies, they can take advantage of any number of “incubator” parks established by local governments. Even if they don’t make use of these tangible opportunities, the returnees are in demand by local employers simply for the insights and breadth of world experience they bring to the table.

Even so, about half of the students who study abroad elect not to return, and if they do, many make the trip back only to leave again within six months or less of coming home. The National Science Foundation recently found that 92% of Chinese graduates with American PhDs still lived in the US five years after graduation. For Indians, the figure was 81%, for South Koreans 41% and for Mexicans 32%. For whatever reason, when it comes to this cadre of China’s sea turtles, it appears Thomas Wolfe may well have been right when he titled his posthumously published 1940 novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again”.

Whether the sea turtles among us today stay here or ultimately return to China, we and all the other countries that host these students have a tremendous opportunity to make a positive impact on how China’s future leaders view and respond to our cultures, social values and business practices.

While living in our countries and attending our universities, these students are not a burden on local tuition aid resources. For many, the daily discourse between them and our young people provides mutual insight and understanding even as each culture influences the other—giving both sides an opportunity to appreciate and learn from the other’s point of view.

We need to be mindful of the fact that increasingly we live in a borderless world. It was reported recently that the unprecedented growth of the Chinese middle class in the coming decade will fuel a surge of 500 million outbound travelers, not the 200 million that was predicted just a year ago. Many of these future visitors will be the sea turtles among us today. The quality of our welcome and the hospitality we extend while they are students in our country now will influence the tenor of the relationship we will have with them down the road – whether as business partners, deal negotiators, friends or simply tourists. I say, “Ni Hao” to them.

As Published