Should I stay or should I leave? To remain or leave China is a question for todays generation of young and talented youth.
Leaving China for a more developed, often Western country could bring a stronger education thats more universally acknowledged, or better-paying career opportunities.
For some 30 years, this has been the pattern of talent flow in China – young people leaving the country for higher education, career development, or an alternative lifestyle.
Jiang Qingkui, a recent graduate from Beijings Communication University of China, is still pursuing this path in the year 2017. He wants to study fashion and build up a competitive portfolio for a future job.
Colleges in China do offer fashion-related programs but they dont compare to what is available at the Parsons School of Design in New York, says Jiang. He wants the whole experience, the exposure to fashion week, career-building connections in the business and expertise one cannot obtain from books.
Official data suggest that Jiangs view is shared by a sizeable group of Chinese students. In 2016, about 544,500 Chinese people left the country for education, up 36% from 2012. Some in China are alarmed by the numbers, concerned that the country is losing its brightest minds.
Professor Tian Fangmeng at Beijing Normal University studies talent migration. He believes theres a difference to be made, depending on what level of education a Chinese student leaves for.
Given that a chunk of those leaving in recent years are going abroad for undergraduate studies, he insists they are yet to be recognized as talent, hence the issue of talent drain is not as severe as many believe. He also points out that only about two to three percent of all college graduates over the years have left China, which is low compared with other countries.
On the other hand, a reverse trend has been observed in recent years. Those who once left China because prospects looked brighter overseas, are now returning for increased opportunities.
Government supported campaigns like the Thousand Talents Program offer lucrative incentives including starting funds and housing to attract top-tier scientists living overseas to return to China.
But not all returnees are back to take advantage of such policies. Some, like Mobvoi founder and CEO Li Zhifei, have returned after seeing opportunities unique to Chinas current transition.
The former California-based Google research scientist founded Mobvoi after coming back to China in 2012. His artificial intelligence tech firm develops AI-powered smart products that enhance daily life scenarios.
Li quickly got a taste of what he called the right decision five years ago, as Mobvoi grew with strong momentum and was able to attract multiple rounds of financing from big names such as Volkswagen and Google.
He believes in timing, and credits his success to making the right choice at the right time. Li applauds the Chinese government for encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, saying that preferential policies have made things easier for overseas talent to start their own business back in China.
Experts say that the two-way talent flow, represented by Jiang and Li, will continue, because an open China means that people are freer than ever to choose the direction that best suit their needs and dreams.