Speakers at a recent Brookings Institution forum on Chinese returnees debated the impact that study abroad experiences will have on China’s political and social development. Around 1.6 million Chinese citizens have studied abroad or finished a fellowship at least a year in duration since 1978, said the panelists. About a half million have since returned, said Cheng Li, Director of Research at Brookings’ John L. Thornton China Center, citing data from the Chinese Embassy.
“Those who study for four months or half a year are not counted” in this analysis, he noted, according to the official transcript (pdf). “And there are a lot of them. Probably several million sent over the past three decades.”
Li recently compared the number of returnees included in the 16th and 17th Central Committee meetings for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who composed 6.2% of 16th Committee members, including alternates, and 10.5% of 17th Committee members and their alternates. “Now, in two years China will have another important meeting, the so-called 18th Party Congress,” said Li. “My projection is somewhere between 15 to 17 percent.”
Hong Kong University professor David Zweig challenged this assumption, noting that “…in social science, definitions matter.” “And Li Cheng uses visiting scholars one year abroad as a visiting scholar, as a returnee,” he added.
“In most of my work I’ve set aside the visiting scholar who has been overseas for one year,” he said, continuing, “Many of those people went—let’s say in the ’80s, went to an American university, never contacted the United States at all. They sat in a laboratory, didn’t know what was going on very much around… And if we’re looking at real changes in values, then I think you’ve got to be talking about people who get degrees.” This revised number, he argues, is much lower.
In addition, those in the Central Committee “were already in the system” noted Li. “Look at the returnees in the Central Committee, before they came to United States, they were already in the system,” said Li. “Look at the university presidents; they say 75 percent of university presidents [in China] are returnees.”
“[The] [m]ajority of them were in system in the same school, you know, so just to come here to study two years and return to the same system,” he said.
Li argued that if Chinese international students study “just from school to school” they have a “really limited” knowledge of the United States. “You are very much insulated,” said Li. “You do not know, as Wang Huiyao said, the heart of America.” The third speaker, Huiyao, is the Director General of the Center for China & Globalization.
“Therefore, I argue that we should open door for post-degree training, not for foreign language, but for this country,” said Li. He argues that “we should encourage Chinese professionals not just to study in our universities, very much insulated or isolated, but should have [some] post-degree education to really know American society and better understand how our [non-governmental organizations] NGOs, and the media, and the local government work.”
Prof. Zweig said that he had conducted a survey in 2006 of 1,381 returnees who studied in Japan and 592 returnees who studied in Canada, his home country “And also the Chicago Council and Asia Society have done some surveys as well of people around the world, and so we borrowed their data for returnees on China,” he said. His research was plagued with low response rates, however.
“The students that study in Japan and go back to China really like Japan,” said Prof. Zweig. And, he said, 25 percent of the people interviewed “work for Japanese companies.”
“So, in conclusion, we find that the returnees are more favorable to their host country, again, the finding about people living in Japan being very positive about Japan is very important,” he said, later adding “But clearly hosting foreign students affects their view of the country and in a positive—generally in a positive way.”
“Compared to the general population, they support more engagement with a developing world, they are less jingoistic, they are less assertive than the people who have never gone abroad.”
Prof. Zweig said his research will be published in the Summer issue of China Quarterly.
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.