Once upon a time, the mystery circle of ‘sea turtles’ (‘haigui’, overseas educated graduates) among China’s talent markets were the apple of the Fortune 500 recruiters’ eyes. Due to a number of reasons we are going to unveil below, the ‘sea turtles’ now are finding themselves no longer in a higher ground compared to their domestic counterparts.

Why? Let us have a look.

‘Turtles’ with History

The term ‘haigui’ used to be equaled to China’s elites. Forty years ago, when Chinese supreme leader Deng Xiaoping started China’s reform and opening-up process, he made a strategic move to send Chinese students and scholars overseas for acquiring technologies and skills.

But as China’s economy developed, more families were able to afford to send their children to study abroad and the ‘haigui’ gradually became less exceptional among a highly educated Chinese workforce.


In 2017, a record 480,900 Chinese students returned to China having studied overseas, according to data from the Ministry of Education, an 11% increase from the year before. Of these, nearly half held a master degree or even higher.

In the 40 years since opening up began, a total of 3.13 million ‘sea turtles’, 83.73% of the Chinese students who graduated abroad, have returned to their homeland. —edited from Peter Chen, inkstonenews.com

Fact Sheets From CCG

In a survey done by Centre for China and Globalization (CCG), nearly a third of those questioned reported that their monthly salary was 10,000 yuan (US$1,470) or more, which excluding any bonuses or other benefits – would equate to an annual salary of AUD25,170 or more.

A further 40 per cent were paid between 6,000 and 10,000 yuan a month, and the rest were paid less than 6,000 yuan a month – equivalent to a basic salary of less than AUD15,100 a year.


Though they are already earning more than the average graduates from domestic universities, they often expect to strive for higher income after living in developed countries, said Nancy Zhou, who completed a one-year postgraduate programme at the University of Warwick in England and then moved to Shanghai to work for an internet company. She said although she found a good job within three months, it is still longer than she expected.

One major issue for overseas students looking for a job back home is that they graduate at the wrong time of year for the main domestic graduate recruitment season, which begins in May and June for the hi-tech sector.

She also said that the lack of internships and the “reverse culture shock” experienced when readjusting to life in China also a barrier for returnees.

“For instance, I’m not good at those skills required in a nepotistic society (China),” She explained some of the expected forms of networking and currying favour with employers made her feel uncomfortable, especially the heavy drinking culture at business dinners.

“You know on such occasions people will often be forced to drink and it’s considered rude if you refuse,” she said.

But despite their complaints, the growing supply of talent educated overseas is making a great contribution to Chinese society, said Wang Huiyao, director of the CCG.

They are playing a key role in China’s innovation and entrepreneurship after joining emerging industries or choosing to start up their own businesses after coming back, he noted.

“I would say that those people were a catalyst for innovation in China in recent years. Because of their contribution, new things have come thick and fast in China’s internet sector,” he added. “With a great number of both people leaving for study overseas and people returning, China is now witnessing a virtuous cycle in talent supply.”

However, the CCG report warned that employers had to do more to address the widespread discontent among the ‘sea turtles’ — the percentage switching jobs because they were unsatisfied with their salaries rose by around 9 percent compared to the year before — if they hoped to retain haigui talents.

Various local authorities have also set up incentives to lure haigui to their areas, ranging from easier access to residency rights to discounted housing or even cash bonuses.

But the survey found 60 percent of those questioned were not fully aware of these incentives and it recommended that more should be done to advertise the ‘go home benefits. —edited from South China Morning Post

Go Back to China—-That’s Where The Action Happens

Chinese Columbia University graduates taking a selfie

Chinese Columbia University graduates taking a selfie

“Chinese overseas students would have often graduated and got a job abroad, but a lot are wanting to go back to China, because that’s where the action is,” said John Mullally, Regional Director for Financial Services in South China at recruitment company Robert Walters.

Those who stay overseas may improve their language and technical skills, but they have to sacrifice their network in China, which is vital for many client-oriented finance jobs.

“Previously they would have stayed abroad until they made Vice Presidents; at that point they’re not cheap. But now they’re coming back at the analyst level,” Mullally added.

Businessman boxing against a giant businessman. Business concept cartoon illustration

Businessman boxing against a giant businessman. Business concept cartoon illustration

The fiercely competitive labor market is also creating challenges for foreign companies in China. A report released by LinkedIn and Bain & Company in December last year found that 40% of business leaders who began a new job at a Chinese company in the past five years had transitioned there from a multinational company.

“Local companies are winning more talent from multinational corporations,” said Stephen Shih, a partner at Bain. —edited from John Mullally, Robert Walters

Local Companies Verses Multinational Corporations — A War on Talents

Part of the reason is the lengthy chains of command at international firms. “If there’s a lack of urgency in the head office, your request might sit there for a few days, then that opportunity in China has moved on. Things happen so fast here,” said Ker Gibbs, the President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

“Chinese organizations get that. You walk into the CEO’s office, get a decision and walk out,” Gibbs said, adding that competing for talents is the new battleground for foreign firms in China.


Nowadays the nation’s job-seekers are operating in a new China – a jobs and business market as vibrant as anywhere else in the world, with new and modernizing industries that will require the cream of global talent.

Recent returnee Peter Chen, who rejected the offer from European car companies during his job hunt, feels he made the right decision to return home – despite the long hours and disappointing salary.

“But in a Chinese company, I can have a strong influence over research and development,” he says. —edited from Stephen Shih, Bain & Company

Although the statistical data may show you the fact that the good old times for ‘sea turtles’ has gone, the group of ‘haigui’, according to the recruitment firms and authoritative institutions, remain a most competitive force in China’s labour markets. The situation may continue to shift, but the foreign culture and westernized mentality they would have obtained overseas can be their keys unlocking a globalized workforce in a rising China.

Edited by Joreal Qian