A tale of eight Harvard researchers coming back to China


The People’s Daily on the factors drawing overseas top-notch scientists back home.

China is making remarkable progress in reversing its brain drain as more as more and more overseas students are returning to their home country. Nicknamed “sea turtles” — 海龟 hǎiguī, a pun on hǎiguī 海归 which means coming home after working or studying abroad — these internationally-educated students are largely driven by economic growth in China.

Why are growing numbers of overseas Chinese students returning home?

In addition to fresh graduates, some senior researchers abroad are embarking on the same path. On August 25, the People’s Daily published a story (in Chinese) about eight postdoctoral fellows from Harvard University who returned from the U.S. and started to work at Hefei Institute of Physical Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASHIPS), or what the article called “Hefei Science Island” (合肥科学岛 héféikēxuédǎo).

The collective decision made by the eight was described as a “chain reaction” (连锁效应 liánsuǒxiàoyìng) by Wang Junfeng 王俊峰, the first among them who opted to come back to China after a trip to the Hefei institute in 2009. Prior to the visit, Wang was a research fellow at Harvard and he was already feeling that there was an invisible glass ceiling in his academic career in the U.S. And even though he spent more than 20 years overseas after his graduation from Peking University, Wang felt trapped in an identity crisis. “After many years, I still found it frustrating to define myself,” Wang said. “I felt I was floating.”

The eight fellows met each other and became friends at Harvard, and are now working together back in China. Though their trajectories are to a large extent similar, the calculations behind their decisions are different. For example, Zhang Xin 张欣, a mother of two kids, said that her decision was prompted by a school event, when her seven-year-old daughter failed to identify the Chinese flag. “The child was completely westernized,” Zhang said. “I talked to her in Chinese, but she replied in English.” Zhang Na 张钠, a male scientist from Beijing, said that when he was in the U.S., he was constantly reminded that this is “someone else’s place” as some people around him belittled his home country. He told the People’s Daily that the longer he stayed in the U.S., the more eager he became to return to China. Another scientist Lin Wenchu 林文楚 explained that it was his dream to have an independent laboratory that attracted him to his home country. He said, “It is so hard to realize my dream in the U.S., where I can only work for others.”

Eight years after Wang returned to China, he said China has a strong magnetic field. In a conversation with a colleague who just came back to China, Wang said, “For those who don’t have confidence in the future of China, they won’t return voluntarily. But China’s development is unstoppable.”