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A bale of sea turtles

As attitudes to the West sour, students turn home

BAI SHUANG stayed overseas longer than most. After a degree in Paris, Ms Bai worked for a French company, then went to London for a Master’s and got another job. By 2017 two forces pulled her home. First was her salary, which Ms Bai thought too low; she heard she could earn more in Shanghai’s startup scene. The second was her parents, who were aghast at the terrorist attacks that rocked both her adoptive cities. China was safe, they said, and Ms Bai could “shine” here. “If there is a place where you can have it all, then why not?” Ms Bai reasoned. She bought a ticket home.

Ms Bai is a “sea turtle”, a play on the Chinese homonym haigui, meaning “to return from abroad”. Of the 6.2m Chinese who left to study overseas between 2000 and 2019, more than 4m have returned, says the education ministry. The rate of return has picked up. In 2001 just 14% went home. But in every year since 2013, China has welcomed back at least four in five overseas graduates. Amid the unusual stresses of covid-19, it is thought that 800,000 came home in the first nine months of 2020, up from 580,000 in 2019.

The pandemic has cut short stints abroad. When it is over, educational flows should pick up again. But a new confluence of factors had already been turning well-educated Chinese…