21 August 2019
People sit under a giant billboard of Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen. When Deng launched unprecedented reform after his 1978 return to power, he sent thousands of students abroad to study. Photo: Bloomberg
People sit under a giant billboard of Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen. When Deng launched unprecedented reform after his 1978 return to power, he sent thousands of students abroad to study. Photo: Bloomberg

Returning graduates: Deng Xiaoping would be pleased

The 110th anniversary of the birth of Deng Xiaoping on Aug. 22 has brought forth a flood of articles and speeches on the late reformer, including a 48-part miniseries on his launching of economic reform, reversing Chairman Mao Zedong’s focus on class struggle and political campaigns.

One of Deng’s first decisions after his return to power in 1978 was to jettison the idea of self-sufficiency and to send 3,000 students to the United States to learn from the West.

While others worried that the students wouldn’t return, Deng was pragmatic and said even if some don’t return, they would still be an asset for China and, after the Chinese economy developed, they would return to the motherland.

Since then, huge numbers of Chinese students have gone overseas, particularly to the United States but also to other countries such as Britain, Germany and Australia.

Indeed, many western universities are now dependent on fee-paying students from China.

Up until the 1990s, the vast majority of Chinese students remained abroad, in part because the Chinese economy did not offer them the opportunities available overseas. However, this started to change toward the end of the decade.

An example of someone who gave up a successful career in the US is Deng Zhonghan, also known as John Deng. Armed with three graduate degrees from Berkeley, he worked for IBM and Sun Microsystems before establishing Pixim Inc., an integrated circuit company, in Silicon Valley.

In 1999, the Chinese government invited him home to take part in celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic. In Beijing, he gave Chinese leaders a rundown on the IT industry around the world.

That year, he co-founded Vimicro, based in Beijing, China’s first chip design company, with the help of other Chinese doctorate holders who gave up careers in Silicon Valley.

Today, Deng is vice president of the China Association for Science and Technology and an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering. In fact, according to CCTV, “more than 80 percent of academicians and 95 percent of directors of institutes with the Chinese Academy of Sciences are returned students.”

CCTV also reported in 2003 that “returned students and scholars make up the majority of the country’s top scientists and engineers.”

That year, then president Hu Jintao urged the Communist party and the government to “realize the major significance of helping returned students” and called on them to attract more returned students to “participate in the development of the economy or to serve the country in a variety of ways”.

While more graduates are returning to China now, more than half of the roughly 2.5 million people who went overseas to study remain abroad. In a way, this is a brain drain, with Chinese graduates contributing to the development of their host countries rather than that of China.

This was clearly worrying to Beijing and steps were taken to attract more graduates back. A national talent plan was announced for the 2010-2020 decade with the idea of luring overseas graduates home.

By the end of 2012, it was announced that of the 2.64 million students who had gone abroad, 1.09 million, or about 41 percent, had returned.

In October, President Xi Jinping called on overseas-educated Chinese, whether at home or overseas, to contribute to realizing the “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation.

“You are warmly welcomed if you return to China,” he said in an address to the Western Returned Scholars Association on its 100th anniversary. “If you stay abroad, we support you in serving the country in various ways.”

Beijing has made it clear that even Chinese who stay overseas and assume foreign nationality can serve China’s interests.

Today, China has achieved its centuries-old ambition to be rich and powerful but Chinese students continue to go abroad, including to Hong Kong, for higher studies. In the former British colony, non-local students are capped at 20 percent of the student body, but more than 80 percent of the non-local students are from the mainland.

At the post-graduate level, there is no cap and mainland students account for more than 70 percent of those getting master’s degrees and doctorates.

By some estimates, half of all undergraduates look for jobs and try to remain in Hong Kong. This makes life more difficult for local graduates who now face much stiffer competition.

Because of proximity, Hong Kong is particularly attractive since mainlanders who work there can return home frequently to visit. Some have put their parents in Shenzhen, across the border, which is only an hour away by train or fast ferry.

No doubt Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, would be pleased.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe