China’s people have been studying overseas for more than 150 years, but the number staying in the West rose steadily after China introduced its reform and opening-up policy in 1978. This trend has reversed somewhat in the twenty-first century, as returnees are drawn back mainly by China’s booming economy. The brain drain of high-end talent continues to be a problem, however, which China must address to secure its future.
Studying overseas (liúxué 留学) is not a new phenomenon in China. The reform and opening-up policy initiated in the late 1970s, however, along with the global expansion of China’s science and technology (S&T) and educational exchanges, together have introduced a broad array of new, substantial opportunities for study abroad through both government sponsorship and—increasingly—private channels. Overseas study is significant for China not only because of the large number of students and scholars abroad (liúxuéshēng 留学生), but also because of the critical role played by those who return after finishing their studies. The returnees (hǎiguī 海归), especially the ones who have come back recently to take advantage of a booming economy and the government’s favorable policies toward them, are strategically important to China’s becoming a global economic and technological power (and to some extent to its political evolution). Although “brain circulation”—a reference to ethnic Chinese scientists and professionals abroad helping their country by acting as information conduits and partners in academic collaborations and new business ventures—has benefited China, getting its exchange students and educated professionals to return home is crucial to its future.