Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Wary of Future, Professionals Leave China in Record Numbers [New York Times]

Headlines and titles may inadvertently seem skewed as it frames thought. Like a mental snapshot, it can oversimplify or at its worst, misdirect (in the wider ecosystem of political rhetoric, this looks part of the inadvertent Sino-US leadership transitional exchange of shaping mind-share). I think if one reads on, this article can be taken rather positively.

The recent movement of these professional, educated Chinese across the world can further help build bridges where mass media glosses over. In others ways, it is not a bad thing it is an educated, professional group that carries Chinese thought extending outwards. Where most of all the previous batches who left largely by push factors or war, the case now is markedly different.

In Singapore’s case, the overarching narrative, its Chinese are largely descended from craftsmen and coolies. As Lee Kuan Yew once pointed out – in response to Deng’s question if China would ever succeed looking at how Singapore successful hybridization of central power with Confucian meritocracy at the forefront and free market capitalism with its socio-cultural tradeoffs.

Indeed, on closer examination, the numbers today who move due to socio-economic pull factors are still small in percentage terms. As reported by this article, even fewer (perhaps few would admit) regard political reasons as the chief factor.

Over millennia of movement the number of overseas Chinese number at 55million . That cumulative number makes it as large as most medium sized countries so they are not insignificant either. Change your lenses change your sight.

Perhaps looking at the bright side can be a decent point of view. I know a few Chinese aged between 19 and 35 now residing in Australia. We have been on camping trips far out in the bush carrying our own water without much fuss, Others I know, by competing against in futsal teams  in the local leagues, many others love dressing up for the Melbourne Cup day.

Some may find it hard to empathize the competition in China because they may not have set foot in China, or met the Chinese on the ground. 9 to 10 million compete for a spot in university a the college examinations each year. Those who don’t make the grade fight for very little. A 2 to 3000RMB monthly salary, hardly enough to cover rent for a decent sized rental home is norm for those striking out.

Have personally known a few bright hardworking of China’s digital natives who just couldn’t make the grade despite sometimes seemingly overboard preparations. Such is their reality. Many have integrated well here, Melbourne thrives with a former mayor who is Chinese, and many live just like the Aussies do adding to the multicultural social fabric down under.

In monetary terms, they automatically make six times the amount due to the strong Aussie dollar with far less working hours with plenty of time for family and other pursuits. Many of them make efficient workers who get things done so promptly it is hard for work to keep up. This is not representative across the board of course. For every one that excels there potentially is another who just wants to get by. But I digress.

In return as well, for those who work with or live in communities with Aussies, they become a real life conduit for Aussies to understand China in its own terms too. Its cuisine has proven immensely popular here with all 8 major branches of Chinese cooking represented those from all corners of China proving extremely popular – right down to Sichuan hotpot, a regular in winter for many. It then moves onto the locally adapted local favorite the dim sim (does not exist in real Chinese culinary palates I think), to the classy Beijing Hutong themed Xiao long bao restaurants.

I meet many of them at vineyards, organic farms, strawberry farms and fishing spots. About half happily drive the Aussie-made Holden because it feels right to drive a locally made car in Australia. Just the tip of the iceberg. I think it is a great thing. Overseas Chinese who mingle well with host environments naturally make vehicles of the wider Chinese culture and national identity. It also shows like that others, there are those who seek out a balanced life too where work doesn’t dominate all their headspace.

More importantly, they help others see we can all get along, share other ideals and worldviews. Interestingly too, in the field of diasporic identities, that overseas Chinese end up being all too aware of their own Chineseness is common across most other diaporic groups too – from the Greeks and Italians I know here – they celebrate their identity with zeal and vigour.

Not all assimilate or adapt of course. It would oversimplify to say all enjoy life here. Many of them feel the pace of life is a little too slow. I have also known a fair few who can’t wait to return, but do so at least, with a broadened outlook and first hand experience of another way of living.

They return with a first hand glimpse of a rather liberal, western society where the channels to exercise one’s right to voice, its deferences shows other paradigms exist successfully elsewhere. When they enter the work force, they are valued for their more globalised outlook, with a practical experience of using English in school and at work, the culture, history, norms and processes. And this is celebrated in the mass media there in game shows – this comes with Chinese subtitles only.

And 非你莫属 is just one of many state funded shows out there. It features distinctly American style sports commentary and a debate that involves mentors, employers, the host and the job seeker. They reserve the right to say no at the end of their final round offers, and negotiate outside the show. And its the wide range of jobseekers on offer, from the clerk to driver, to partner or director raking in six figure RMB a month.

Cultural capital has been identified as a pillar industry and the production values are apparent, it has taken care to weed out what was deemed low culture reality tv and today the focus on more productive shows like this is ramping up. This employment-seeking show emphasises the need for more internationally minded employees in their midst. This episode talks about it is unavoidable now China has risen that it needs an upgrade in a globalised mindset. It actively advertises for Haigui 海归; pinyin: hǎiguī on foreign television. A fair few of them seem genuinely proud in returning to contribute.

This is highly recommended and it gives a glimpse of how the Chinese are democratising on their own terms, in their unique own way. The adaptations from American and European game shows are obvious at the onset, but their process are far more intricate and involve far more depth of discourse) that see many returning candidates have the right to take questions, present competently, then proceed into the final rounds where they exercise the right to eliminate and haggle salary with interested employers.

As a student of media, it is important to discern the agenda setting potential of media. Although the political economy of the mass media no longer dominate the spectrum of messages as they used to, transnational media corporations remain nevertheless powerful.

As such, we consume, at best, selected, well-informed, well intended, rationalized textual and visual constructions of the macro, but never of the real thing until all five senses are fed. Even then, sometimes the right messages don’t go right through. A lover’s tiff for example, where misreading of body language triggers a chain of cascading misunderstandings is one most can relate with. The primacy of first hand experience is equally,  important to get a full picture – to try to make the best of the information available, to more accurately inform opinion.

The movement is not all one way. With economies stagnant in the West and job opportunities limited, the number of students returning to China was up 40 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year. The government has also established high-profile programs to lure back Chinese scientists and academics by temporarily offering various perks and privileges. Professor Cao from Nottingham, however, says these programs have achieved less than advertised.

– – –

Wary of Future, Professionals Leave China in Record Numbers
by Ian Johnson
Source – New York Times, published October 31, 2012

Lee Yangang and his wife, Wang Lu, emigrated to Sydney, Australia, from Beijing last year, saying they felt insecure in China. Source – New York Times, 2012

BEIJING — At 30, Chen Kuo had what many Chinese dream of: her own apartment and a well-paying job at a multinational corporation. But in mid-October, Ms. Chen boarded a midnight flight for Australia to begin a new life with no sure prospects.

Like hundreds of thousands of Chinese who leave each year, she was driven by an overriding sense that she could do better outside China. Despite China’s tremendous economic successes in recent years, she was lured by Australia’s healthier environment, robust social services and the freedom to start a family in a country that guarantees religious freedoms.

“It’s very stressful in China — sometimes I was working 128 hours a week for my auditing company,” Ms. Chen said in her Beijing apartment a few hours before leaving. “And it will be easier raising my children as Christians abroad. It is more free in Australia.”

As China’s Communist Party prepares a momentous leadership change in early November, it is losing skilled professionals like Ms. Chen in record numbers. In 2010, the last year for which complete statistics are available, 508,000 Chinese left for the 34 developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is a 45 percent increase over 2000.

Individual countries report the trend continuing. In 2011, the United States received 87,000 permanent residents from China, up from 70,000 the year before. Chinese immigrants are driving real estate booms in places as varied as Midtown Manhattan, where some enterprising agents are learning Mandarin, to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which offers a route to a European Union passport.

Few emigrants from China cite politics, but it underlies many of their concerns. They talk about a development-at-all-costs strategy that has ruined the environment, as well as a deteriorating social and moral fabric that makes China feel like a chillier place than when they were growing up. Over all, there is a sense that despite all the gains in recent decades, China’s political and social trajectory is still highly uncertain.

“People who are middle class in China don’t feel secure for their future and especially for their children’s future,” said Cao Cong, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham who has studied Chinese migration. “They don’t think the political situation is stable.”

Most migrants seem to see a foreign passport as insurance against the worst-case scenario rather than as a complete abandonment of China.

A manager based in Shanghai at an engineering company, who asked not to be named, said he invested earlier this year in a New York City real estate project in hopes of eventually securing a green card. A sharp-tongued blogger on current events as well, he said he has been visited by local public security officials, hastening his desire for a United States passport.

“A green card is a feeling of safety,” the manager said. “The system here isn’t stable and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. I want to see how things turn out here over the next few years.”

Political turmoil has reinforced this feeling. Since early this year, the country has been shocked by revelations that Bo Xilai, one of the Communist Party’s most senior leaders, ran a fief that by official accounts engaged in murder, torture and corruption.

“There continues to be a lot of uncertainty and risk, even at the highest level — even at the Bo Xilai level,” said Liang Zai, a migration expert at the University at Albany. “People wonder what’s going to happen two, three years down the road.”

The sense of uncertainty affects poorer Chinese, too. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, 800,000 Chinese were working abroad at the end of last year, versus 60,000 in 1990. Many are in small-scale businesses — taxi driving, fishing or farming — and worried that their class has missed out on China’s 30-year boom. Even though hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted from poverty during this period, the rich-poor gap in China is among the world’s widest and the economy is increasingly dominated by large corporations, many of them state-run.

“It’s driven by a fear of losing out in China,” said Biao Xiang, a demographer at Oxford University. “Going abroad has become a kind of gambling that may bring you some opportunities.”

Zhang Ling, the owner of a restaurant in the coastal city of Wenzhou, is one such worrier. His extended family of farmers and tradesmen pooled its money to send his son to high school in Vancouver, Canada. The family hopes he will get into a Canadian university and one day gain permanent residency, perhaps allowing them all to move overseas. “It’s like a chair with different legs,” Mr. Zhang said. “We want one leg in Canada just in case a leg breaks here.”

Emigration today is different from in past decades. In the 1980s, students began going abroad, many of them staying when Western countries offered them residency after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. In the 1990s, poor Chinese migrants captured international attention by paying “snakeheads” to take them to the West, sometimes on cargo ships like the Golden Venture that ran aground off New York City in 1993.

Now, years of prosperity mean that millions of people have the means to emigrate legally, either through investment programs or by sending an offspring abroad to study in hopes of securing a long-term foothold.

Wang Ruijin, a secretary at a Beijing media company, said she and her husband were pushing their 23-year-old daughter to apply for graduate school in New Zealand, hoping she can stay and open the door for the family. They do not think she will get a scholarship, Ms. Wang said, so the family is borrowing money as a kind of long-term investment.

“We don’t feel that China is suitable for people like us,” Ms. Wang said. “To get ahead here you have to be corrupt or have connections; we prefer a stable life.”

Perhaps signaling that the government is concerned, the topic has been extensively debated in the official media. Fang Zhulan, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, wrote in the semiofficial magazine People’s Forum that many people were “voting with their feet,” calling the exodus “a negative comment by entrepreneurs upon the protection and realization of their rights in the current system.”

The movement is not all one way. With economies stagnant in the West and job opportunities limited, the number of students returning to China was up 40 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year. The government has also established high-profile programs to lure back Chinese scientists and academics by temporarily offering various perks and privileges. Professor Cao from Nottingham, however, says these programs have achieved less than advertised.

“Returnees can see that they will become ordinary Chinese after five years and be in the same bad situation as their colleagues” already in China, he said. “That means that few are attracted to stay for the long run.”

Many experts on migration say the numbers are in line with other countries’ experiences in the past. Taiwan and South Korea experienced huge outflows of people to the United States and other countries in the 1960s and ’70s, even as their economies were taking off. Wealth and better education created more opportunities to go abroad and many did — then, as now in China, in part because of concerns about political oppression.

While those countries eventually prospered and embraced open societies, the question for many Chinese is whether the faction-ridden incoming leadership team of Xi Jinping, chosen behind closed doors, can take China to the next stage of political and economic advancement.

“I’m excited to be here but I’m puzzled about the development path,” said Bruce Peng, who earned a master’s degree last year at Harvard and now runs a consulting company, Ivy Magna, in Beijing. Mr. Peng is staying in China for now, but he says many of his 100 clients have a foreign passport or would like one. Most own or manage small- and medium-size businesses, which have been squeezed by the policies favoring state enterprises.

“Sometimes your own property and company situation can be very complicated,” Mr. Peng said. “Some people might want to live in a more transparent and democratic society.”

Amy Qin and Patrick Zuo contributed research.

Filed under: Back to China, Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Communications, Culture, Democracy, Domestic Growth, Economics, Finance, Government & Policy, Greater China, Influence, International Relations, Lifestyle, Mapping Feelings, Media, New York Times, Peaceful Development, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Social, Strategy, Tao Guang Yang Hui (韬光养晦), The Chinese Identity, Trade, Yuan, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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