The new long march

Ever more Chinese students will head abroad

China

China’s exports fluctuate over time but one is leaving the country in ever-greater quantities: its people. The rising tide of Chinese students moving abroad to study will swell further in 2017, when well over 700,000 youngsters will venture forth. The largest share will head to America, where students from China account for one in three of the international cohort. The number of Chinese students in America alone is likely to reach 375,000 in 2017, nearly double the total in 2011. By 2020 there will be nearly 450,000.

These Chinese students are part of the growing internationalisation of education: in 2015, 5m students were studying outside their home countries, more than triple the number in 1990; one in six of the total were Chinese. The vast bulk of the emigrés depart for some form of higher education (almost all of China’s top science students earn their PhDs abroad), but a fast-growing minority leave at a younger age. From 2005 to 2014 the number of Chinese high-schoolers in America increased almost 60-fold, to 40,000. The ranks of Chinese secondary-school pupils in Britain are increasing faster than those of any other nationality, also helping to raise national exam results: Chinese pupils consistently perform above the national average in their host nations.

This has created an international contest for young Chinese minds. Australia, where one in four of the international-student contingent is Chinese, has simplified its visa application and now lets students apply in Mandarin. Ever more educational institutions from around the world are embarking on recruitment missions to China.

It was once only the richest or brightest who could study in foreign lands; most went to top universities, often in America. A slow rise in students and visiting scholars going overseas in the 1980s turned into a flood in the 1990s and studying abroad is now an ambition shared by the masses: according to one study by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, 57% of Chinese parents would send their offspring abroad if they could afford it. Many of these children are already preparing for their departure by studying at one of the hundreds of schools in China with an international programme. Though some still go to Ivy League schools and their international equivalents, huge numbers now head off to far less high-ranking and prestigious outfits.

The appeal is not just academic. Of the 4m Chinese who have gone to study abroad since 1978, half have not returned, according to the Ministry of Education (and even more by some unofficial counts). Luring students back from foreign campuses constitutes China’s new class struggle.

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