The number of Chinese students who have studied in the US and chosen to return to China has continued to rise in recent years. Their choices are the result of reasons such as difficulty to get a work visa, lucrative policies in their home country and cultural attachment to China.
Globally, around 580,300 Chinese students in 2019 returned to China, said the Ministry of Education (MOE), an increase from 135,000 in 2010. MOE also announced that 2.01 million, or 80 percent of Chinese students studying abroad between 2016-19 have returned to China after graduation.
For those studying in the United States, the first hurdle for their staying after graduation is to acquire a H-1B visa, the nonimmigrant visa that allows US companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise, said Lihua Tan, a partner and immigration attorney based in Chugh LLP’s Santa Clara, California office.
Over the years, Tan and her colleagues help corporate and individual applicants in Silicon Valley to plan and file immigration documents. Usually, big American technology companies, such as Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft, would hire stellar graduates that major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and sponsor their work-visa applications.
However, that common procedure has become increasingly difficult in recent years because the US Congress tends to be suspicious about the intent of foreign students, especially those from China, for possible espionage or tech-secret thefts.
From former US President Donald Trump to his Republican followers, many politicians try to fan sentiment against and suspicion about China-born students and scholars.
In 2021, Republican lawmaker Mo Brooks proposed the American Jobs First Act, with the intent of overhauling the H-1B visa program by imposing additional requirements for applicants and their sponsors.
In 2018, Chinese graduates represented approximately 12 percent of the 332,000 H-1B petitions (initial and continuing employment) approved by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), according to a report compiled by data-tracking company Statista. The rest of the group, around 329,700, the company said had steered their job searches toward China.
“Big Tech is setting aside some of the most lucrative and valuable career opportunities in America and giving them exclusively to foreign guest workers. They’re cutting out Americans to save a few bucks,” the bill’s author claimed, adding that the provisions are “necessary”.
The abrupt revision in immigration policy led to chaos and has been detrimental to many young Chinese graduates, said Tan. “At first, we followed guidance and submitted supplementary materials for work-visa applicants, hoping things will get better,” she recalled of 2021. “After rounds and rounds of red tape and a wild goose chase, we came to realize the policy has become a scheme, a setup to fail applicants of specific nationality.”
Many were compelled to leave for China.
“I would say the increased difficulty to acquire an immigration visa has directly impacted their lives,” said Tan. “They should have been able to apply what they’ve learned from US universities and labs to jobs offered in the US and should have had the freedom to choose where to settle down other than being forced to accept. “Whatever the perspective, this is unfair for Chinese nationals and a total loss for all,” she added.
The Chinese government also has expanded the package of incentives and perks for graduates from foreign universities and offered preferential policies for tech leaders.
In June, Shanghai announced that it would relax its household registration-permit regulation by granting the permit, or hukou, to nonlocal students who graduate from the world’s top 50 universities if they work in the city starting from July to June next year.
According to the Shanghai Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau, the short-listed candidates, unlike regular candidates, will not be required to earn points based on social security payments like before to obtain the hukou, and can settle in Shanghai immediately.
Several other big cities in China also adopted similar policies in a move to expand their talent pool, which is believed to vitalize and rejuvenate local economies amid the COVID-19 pandemic and afterward.
“A strong message of (welcoming talent) was sent,” said Emily Chang, a business management major at University of Pennsylvania. Unlike past generations who cling to the “American Dream” concept, many of the new generation of Chinese students prefer opportunities in China that can provide a platform through which they can fully realize their self-worth.
Shenzhen, in South China’s Guangdong province, welcomed 27,000 returning overseas Chinese students in 2021, an increase of more than 30 percent year-on-year. It is a record high, according to Shenzhen’s municipal human resources and social security bureau.
“I won’t limit my choices by geography,” said Chang. “Instead, I will go wherever my skills and expertise fit. In that case, China is my first choice.”
Rae Ann, who graduated from University of California San Diego, echoed Chang. She decided to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Nottingham (Ningbo), where the local campus is located in her hometown in Zhejiang province.
Rae Ann said she saw career opportunities in China. “Since my future plan is education, and one of my advantages is bilingual, I figured learning bilingual [for my master’s] and situating myself in China is a plus,” she said.
Her typical day included working on her master’s degree assignments while teaching part-time at TOFEL preparation institutions in Ningbo. “Not only careerwise, but also lifewise, I made the right decision,” said Rae Ann.
There are also those who decided to return simply because they believe in “family first”. Kevin Chen, a rising senior majoring in digital media at NYU Tandon, is one of them.
He participated in the Go Local Program at NYU Shanghai when the pandemic hit in 2020 and enjoyed being close to family for one and a half years in Shanghai.
“For some, taking online classes at home is a waste of their college experience, but for me, I cherish the moment being with my parents and my lovely dog,” Chen said.
He secured an internship in New York this summer after attending in-person classes last fall. However, he applied to intern online while returning to Shanghai to join his family.
“I don’t complain about shuffling back and forth between New York and Shanghai because family is my top priority,” he said.
Kayla Ma in New York contributed to this story.