China Draws Skilled Chinese Back Home

David Pierson and Don Lee, Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2009

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“I’m definitely considering moving back,” said Jia [Xun Jia, a doctoral candidate in theoretical physics at UCLA], 27, who always envisioned himself establishing a career in the U.S. first but is now firing off his resume to contacts in China. “They need people to go back.”

The Chinese government is counting on people like Jia–nicknamed “sea turtles” because they journeyed across the ocean and then came back–to help retool its economy and find paths to expansion beyond the cheap exports on which the country has relied for so many years.

Late last year, the government launched an aggressive campaign to lure them back and is spending millions to entice accomplished investors, bankers, researchers and engineers to come home.

During a 10-day series of job fairs in December, Chinese banks, universities and government agencies interviewed more than 4,400 people in London, Chicago and New York.

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The economic boom that lighted up China in the last decade had already served as a beacon to many expatriates, drawing thousands home from the U.S. and other places.

A record 50,000 Chinese students who studied abroad returned to China last year, an increase of 6,000 from the year before and more than double the number in 2004, government statistics show.

Though there are no official data, the presence of returning Chinese expatriates and foreign-born ethnic Chinese in China has grown over the years, experts say.

In Shanghai, about 4,000 businesses are said to have been founded by returned students, amounting to more than $500 million in investment, Chinese state media have reported.

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With the global recession slowing the economy to levels last seen in 2002, the Chinese government wants even more of those living abroad to come home in the next few years.

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Although it’s unclear how successful the recruiting campaign will ultimately be, financial firms in Shanghai did recently offer jobs to 53 candidates as a result of the fairs, according to Caijing, an influential Chinese business magazine.

State media also reported that Chinese automaker Futian is eyeing laid-off workers in Detroit, hoping to hire about 10 specialists in research and development, production and sales.

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But with China’s economic boom over the last decade, the idea of moving back became increasingly palatable and, in many cases, attractive to the ambitious.

Multinational corporations opened offices, entrepreneurs broke ground and living standards soared in the metropolitan areas along the coast.

“The younger generation has no hesitation going back,” said Henry Zhang of the Chinese Finance Assn., which helped organize a recent recruitment fair in New York. “I think it’s a permanent shift.”

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Shanghai, the primary destination for those returning, is looking to seize opportunities created by the global downturn to build an international financial center rivaling those of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Recruiting events now occur regularly. In a low-key affair at the end of December, a group of sea turtles invited 65 people from overseas to spend two days at a Marriott hotel in the Pudong district, China’s financial hub and home to Shanghai’s stock exchanges.

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