More than 1.5 million Chinese have left their homeland to study since Deng Xiaoping began encouraging them to do so in 1978; for many years, few of them returned. Now the tide is turning, according to Ministry of Education figures: Last year, 186,000 came back, nearly 40 percent more than in 2010.
Their reasons vary, but one stands out: China's economic boom makes the country a very attractive place to anyone seeking to build a future.
Steven Bai, for example, stayed on to work for two years after finishing his master's in information technology in Australia. "I had a small job in a small company," says Mr. Bai, sipping a latte in a Beijing Starbucks one recent Saturday morning. He returned home to China last November and signed on with Lenovo. "Now I have a good job in a big company," he says happily. "The career opportunities are much better here."
Luring 'sea turtles' home
"Returnees" are not a new phenomenon in China; Mao Zedong was the only member of the first Communist Party Central Political Committee to rule China in 1949 who had not studied or worked abroad. Those who come back even have a nickname, "sea turtles," a play on the Chinese words for "returnee."
But since 2008, when it launched its "1,000 Talents Plan," the government has attached particular importance to persuading Chinese citizens to put their foreign training and experience to the service of their homeland.