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Returning students: plight of the sea turtles


“I left in 1980 with only three dollars in my pocket,” recalls Li Sanqi. Like most in that elite group, he excelled, rising to a coveted position at the University of Texas, while launching several technology firms. Now he is a senior executive at Huawei, a Chinese telecoms giant, enticed back by the chance to help build a world-class multinational.

“我在1980年离开(中国),口袋里仅揣着3美元,”李三奇(音译)回忆道。和那一批中大多数的精英们一样,他表现出众,并在曾催生过诸多科技公司的德克萨斯大学中晋升到一个令人垂涎的位置。现在他是中国电信巨头——华为公司的高级管理人 员,他因中国需其帮忙以建立一个世界级跨国公司而被召唤回国。

Mr Li seems the perfect example of a sea turtle, orhai gui(in Mandarin, the phrase “return across the sea” sounds similar to that animal’s name), long applauded in China for bringing back advanced skills. In the past such folk reliably reaped handsome premiums in the local job market, but no longer. Sea turtles are not universally praised, the wage differential is shrinking and some are even unable to find jobs. Wags say they should now be calledhai dai, or seaweed. This is a startling turn, given their past contributions.

李先生是海龟们的杰出代表。海龟,意为“海归”,常被用于赞誉那些从国外引进新技术回中国 的留学生们。过去,海龟们曾因这种赞誉而在当地就业市场中获得可观收入。然而,好时光一去不复返。海龟们不再获得普遍好评,他们与当地劳动力的工资差距正 在减少,有些甚至难以找到工作。坊间有称他们现在应该被称为海待(海带)。在这个转折点上,他们昔日辉煌不再。

Wang Huiyao of the China Western Returned Scholars Association, which celebrates its centenary this year, observes that sea turtles have returned in five waves. The first, in the 19th century, produced China’s first railway-builder and its first university president. The second and third, before 1949, produced many leaders of the Nationalist and Communist parties. The fourth wave, which went to the Soviet bloc in the 1950s, produced such leaders as Jiang Zemin and Li Peng.

王辉耀,是已走过百年历程的欧美同学会中的一员,他观察到共有五次海龟回国潮。第一次发生 在19世纪,并为中国培育了第一条铁路设计者以及第一个大学校长;第二和第三次,发生在1949年以前,并为国共两党培育出许多领导人;第四次浪潮,和 1950年被送往苏联阵营深造有关,并产生了如江泽民及李鹏等领导人。

The present wave began in 1978, and is by far the biggest. Since then, about 2.6m Chinese have gone abroad to study. The exodus has grown of late to about 400,000 per year. The majority stay overseas, but the 1.1m who have come back have made a difference. Mr Wang argues that whereas the first three waves revolutionised China and the fourth modernised it, the fifth wave is globalising the country.

现在我们正经历始于1978年的第五次浪潮,也是最大的一次。从那以后,约260万中国学 子出国深造。最近,这批大量外出深造的队伍以每年40万人的速度增长。他们中的大部分留在海外,但是其中的110万人回国发展,希望创不同。王先生认为, 如果说前三次留学归国浪潮有助于变革中国,第四次浪潮为了使中国走向现代化,那么第五次浪潮则为这个国家带来全球化。

Sea turtles are helping to link China’s economy to the world. They founded leading technology firms such as Baidu. Many are senior managers in the local divisions of multinational firms. They are helping to connect China to commercial, political and popular culture abroad.


Why then is their importance declining? Several studies show that sea turtles on average must now wait longer to find a less senior post at a smaller salary premium over local hires. The weakening job market for all graduates is one reason. Another is that, as China’s domestic market has taken off, industries such as e-commerce have evolved in ways unfamiliar to those who spent years abroad. Gary Rieschel of Qiming Ventures, a venture-capital firm, says that investors who a decade ago would have funded only those returning from Silicon Valley are now backing entrepreneurs from local universities, who are more familiar with local consumption patterns, computer-gaming habits and social media such as Weibo and Weixin.

他们的重要性为何会下降?多项研究表明,和本地员工相比,海龟们需要花更多时间才能晋升到 一个有较小工资溢价的不那么高级的职位。其中,这也和应届生就业市场疲软有关。另一个原因,则是因为(海龟们)已和中国国内市场脱轨。诸如电商等行业近年 来发生巨大变化,对于那些在外漂泊数年的海龟们而言,一切都不再熟悉。启明创投的Gary Rieschel提到,十年前到处网罗从硅谷回来的投资者们现在将目光转移到从当地大学毕业的企业家们身上,因为他们更熟悉当地的消费模式,电脑游戏习惯 以及诸如微博以及微信等社会媒体的使用方法。

As China has boomed, its managers have started to shed their inferiority complex. A senior executive at Tencent, a Chinese social-media giant, says he still poaches sea turtles from foreign firms, but finds they have difficulty managing local engineers. A European investment banker says turtles often cling to quaint Western notions like transparency, meritocracy and ethics, which puts them at a disadvantage in China’s hyper-Darwinian economy, where locals are more willing to do whatever the boss or client wants.

随着中国的蓬勃发展,经理人们开始逐渐摆脱他们的自卑感。中国社交媒体巨头腾讯公司的一位 高级管理人员说,他仍从国外公司网络海龟,但是却发现他们难以管理掌控当地的工程师们。一位欧洲的投资银行家说,海龟们倾向坚持属于西方的(在中国看起 来)“奇怪”的信条:如透明,任人唯贤以及职业道德等,而这让他们在中国超达尔文经济的竞争中处于劣势地位——在中国,人们愿意竭尽所能达成老板与客户所 好。

Even foreign firms in China are getting pickier about whom they hire. Yannig Gourmelon of Roland Berger, a German management consultancy, believes the broader profit squeeze at multinational firms that killed off gilded expatriate packages has also sharply reduced the salary premium offered to sea turtles.

即使是中国的外资企业,也在聘请人员上越来越挑剔。德国管理咨询公司罗兰贝格的古默龙(Yannig Gourmelon)认为,跨国公司利润的大幅度减少,使那些镀金过的外派人员待遇下降,也是让海龟们获得更少薪金的原因。

C grade turtles


There is another explanation: many of the latest wave are of lower quality. In the past, only the very best were allowed to go out and so competition for government scholarships was fierce. But as incomes have risen, many families of mediocre Chinese students have spent a fortune on degrees from universities of dubious quality that do little to enhance their job prospects. Worse yet, partly because of the downturn in Western economies, many have come back without work experience.

现在还有另外一个解释:许多最近归国的海龟们(和之前相比)质量较低。过去,只有那些精英 中的精英才被允许出国留学,因此,政府奖学金的竞争异常激烈;但是现在,随着收入的增加,许多平庸学生也能依靠财富获取一个质量可疑大学的文凭,而这对增 加其职场竞争力,提高就业前景没有任何帮助。比这更遭的是,部分由于西方国家的经济衰落,海龟们归国全无工作经验。

Even as hordes of less employable expatriates return, the brightest remain abroad. A study funded by America’s National Science Foundation found that 92% of Chinese with American PhDs still lived in that country five years after graduation. For Indians, the figure was 81%, for South Koreans 41% and for Mexicans 32%.

即使现在(海龟们)以受雇外籍人士身份回国的数量越来越少,最聪明的仍留在国外。一个由美 国国家科学基金会资助的研究发现,拥有美国博士学位的92%的中国人在毕业五年后仍留在美国。与此对应,这个情况对于印度人来说是81%,对于韩国人而言 是41%,对于墨西哥人来说是32%。

To lure such superstars back, the Chinese government is pouring pots of money into a scheme called 1,000 Talents, which offers generous subsidies and other perks. The powerful Organisation Department of the Communist Party is urging regional leaders and university heads to meet quotas for securing talent. In a forthcoming paper, Mr Wang and David Zweig of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology argue that China has been “perhaps the most assertive government in the world” in such efforts.

为了吸引这些超级巨星们,中国政府投入大量资金到一个旨在为他们提供慷慨补贴及大量津贴的 “千人计划”之中。中共组织部正敦促地方领导人以及大学校长们完成一定配额,以引进人才。在即将发表的论文中,王先生以及香港科技大学崔大伟 (DavidZweig)认为,就这些方面而言,中国“也许是世界上最果断的政府”。

Will it work? It seems doubtful. Despite the policies, returning entrepreneurs hit many problems. Labour and land costs are rising, the theft of intellectual property is still rampant and corruption is widespread. Few top-tier scientists have returned. Mr Wang and Mr Zweig’s paper explains why: “If China wants to bring back the best, it needs a fundamental reform of its academic and scientific institutions” to break the power of politicised administrators over hiring and funding.

这些做法有用吗?现在下结论还为时尚早。尽管有了这些政策,归国企业家们仍面临许多问题。 劳动力成本以及土地资金费用正在上升。在顶级科学家们的圈子中,几乎没有人回国。在王先生和崔大伟的论文中解释了这一现象:“如果中国希望吸引最好的(科 学家)回国,那么她需要对学术及科研机构进行根本性的改革”,并以此跳出行政长官雇佣和资助科研的怪圈。

The hard truth is that Chinese abroad often have ambivalent attitudes towards their homeland. The wife and children of Huawei’s Mr Li, the seemingly archetypal sea turtle, still live in America. Rather than just shovelling out subsidies, Chinese officials might do better to strengthen the rule of law, root out corruption and clean up China’s air, water and food. Sea turtles would be sure to notice.

一个残酷的事实是,远在国外的中国人对于他们的祖国常常怀有矛盾的心情。在华为工作的李先 生,就是典型海龟中的一员,他的妻儿仍在美国居住。若想吸引海龟们回归,除提高补助外,中国官员也许还需要加强法治,根除腐败,净化空气,清洁水源,解决 食品安全问题。如果他们真这样做了,海龟们一定注意得到。


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