Sea turtles, status symbols and fanfares – the changing tides of student mobility in China


Sea turtles, status symbols and fanfares – the changing tides of student mobility in China

For decades, China's development strategy was based on absorbing and adopting foreign influences. Since the start of China's reform and opening-up policy (gaige kaifang) in 1978, approximately 8 million Chinese, according to Ministry of Education of China, have studied in foreign universities. During the the peak year 2019, they amounted to over 700,000. Over the years, the steady flow of Chinese students has been strategically important for both China and many of its partner countries, helping Chinese individuals gain a better understanding of the world and the world to understand China.

Now, this movement, however, is undergoing a dramatic shift. Foreign, especially Anglo-American, top universities were previously the number one choice for young people from affluent and well-educated families, but today fewer and fewer Chinese young people are heading abroad. Additionally, a greater proportion of Chinese students who have studied abroad are returning to their home country after graduation.

The main reason for this change can be attributed to the ongoing great power rivalry. The COVID-19 pandemic and deteriorating bilateral relations, especially with the United States, have led to visa and other restrictions affecting the mobility of Chinese citizens. This, in turn, has led to growing prejudices and outright racism towards students of Chinese origin. While the problem is undoubtedly real, Chinese state media has also done its best over the years to fuel these fears and suspicions, particularly concerning the United States.

Criticism of studying abroad has also grown within China. Traditionally, studying abroad has been a privilege reserved for the middle class and the wealthy. As inequality has increased, the Chinese state has tightened its attitudes, and with the onset of policies (or at least rhetoric) addressing the growth of inequality, the wealthy have become more reserved about displaying wealth publicly. In the past, the lavish public display of wealth by the rich has been a major factor eroding China's social stability.

The dramatic change in China's society and economic structure inevitably affects individual decisions about education and career. On the one hand, China's own universities have greatly improved in quality, and there is no longer a need to go abroad for the sake of pursuing quality of education. On the other hand, foreign companies are rapidly moving production away from China to cheaper countries. Instead of being the "world's factory," China is turning into a global hub for science and technology. In its latest 14th Five-Year Plan, China has emphasized the need for human capital in achieving scientific self-sufficiency. Xi Jinping has urged Chinese universities to use "all means necessary" to attract talents from abroad. The shift towards a more technically advanced economic structure has also created numerous new domestic high-tech sector jobs, and many Chinese students who studied abroad have taken the opportunity to transition to the workforce in their native country. Despite the increase in the number of these so-called "sea turtles" returning to China, industries like semiconductor and pharmaceuticals still face severe labor shortages.

Notably, the flows of foreign students to China have also changed dramatically. Previously, the numbers of foreign degree and exchange students heading to China increased steadily, with students coming from all over the world. Western universities experienced a real China boom from the early 2000s to the mid-2010s, and new study and exchange programs related to China were opened with great fanfare. However, the number of arrivals has decreased, and an even larger proportion of young people coming to China now come from the Global South. As an extreme example, the number of American students studying in China has reportedly dropped dramatically, by as much as 98% in less than a decade. The numbers of Finnish students studying in China have also fallen, although not as dramatically as in the case of Americans. According to the embassy's estimate, there are currently only a few dozen Finnish students in China.

The root cause of the changes in student mobility to China can be attributed to China's current public image. From a liberal democratic western perspective, China appears increasingly self-sufficient and authoritarian. The harsh travel restrictions and other measures of control during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these perceptions. It seems that for the time being, China is choosing to stay on its own chosen path, even if its public image is inevitably taking a hit. In recent years, academic exchange programs with China have been quietly canceled or buried, and international students have left the country in large numbers.
Although the absence of foreign students – and especially exchange students with their aerodynamic lifestyle – may not seem like a significant loss to many locals, the drying up of student flows will have significant impacts both on China and other countries. Aside from the economic effects of the absence of foreign students – i.e. the stimulus to the local economy, the ongoing trend will inevitably lead to the erosion of mutual understanding, resulting in new political and economic ripple effects. Particularly for China, this development has significant geopolitical and strategic dimensions. As the flows of students diminish, China's influence in Western countries weakens further at a time when its "borderless" partnership with Russia, tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and many other foreign policy actions risk further isolating it from economically vital Western countries.

The future is never predetermined, however, and trends may change in the future. Youth unemployment has recently exploded in China, and if the complex economic issues China is facing are not resolved, it will inevitably affect the employment prospects of high-tech sectors, which until now have been suffering from a labor shortage. There are already some small signs of mobility restarting. However, these signs should not be over interpreted – it seems unlikely that mobility will return to pre-pandemic levels in the medium term.

Nevertheless, even if a return to the past seems unlikely, the changed circumstances can also be seen, at least from a Finnish and European perspective, as an opportunity – if not for improvement, then at least for minimizing losses. Although more and more Chinese young people choose to study in China, studying abroad is still high on the priority list of many Chinese parents and young people, especially for status reasons. If the gates to the United States close, the opportunities for studying elsewhere may appear more attractive.

Photo: Despite the declining flow of Chinese youth, Finland still appears attractive to Chinese students. Students heading to Finland at an event organized by the embassy in Shanghai in the spring of 2023. Photo taken by Olli Suominen

Stay in touch with TFK-expert Olli Suominen from Beijing.