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What now for returning Chinese graduates? Employment and the ‘seaweed’ syndrome

Echo Chen

Mon Apr 27 2015


THE employability of Chinese graduates has been a hot topic of discussion, both in Australian and Chinese media. Speaking to employers, recruitment and education agencies in China, Echo Chen provides an illuminating perspective for returning Chinese graduates.


Returning overseas students are often referred to as haigui in China. The term means ‘back from overseas’ and sounds the same as the Chinese word for ‘sea turtles’. In recent years, haigui has indicated the Chinese people’s admiration for students who bring back world-class experience and skills from leading universities overseas.

But now some ‘sea turtles’ are being renamed haidai or ‘seaweed’ in English, which means ‘waiting for jobs after coming back from overseas’. Phil Honeywood, executive director of the International Education Association of Australia, alludes to this in an opinion piece published by The Australian – that contrary to traditional expectations at home, these students have failed to gain better opportunities or find jobs in China with their overseas qualifications.

The issue has led to discussion on Chinese media and a change of domestic perception about the value of overseas education. Yet is the real prospect of returning overseas students as worrying as the media have portrayed?

The ‘seaweed’ syndrome – fact or fiction?

Meld spoke to Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Returnees Association, the first organisation of its type to have registered with a municipal government in China. The association acts as a platform where overseas returnees can meet employers seeking job candidates with overseas experience.

Its public relation officer, who asked to be named Jason, said all of the association’s members were either working for companies or building their own businesses. He thinks the media may have overplayed the seaweed syndrome which only describes a minority of overseas returnees.

“The syndrome cannot represent the whole group. It’s the rare case among overseas returnees I have met, and happen only to people who have just come back for less than a year,” Jason said.

“For those at the same age as me, around 30, I see them all working and doing well.”

In China, there is the perception that some returning students become ‘seaweeds’ because they expect too much when looking for jobs. While that could be the case, Jason said today’s overseas returnees had lower job expectations than those a decade ago, as they tried not to fall into public criticism.

“Probably because they have learnt over time they should be humble… Even before they went abroad, media at home were already talking about overseas returnees being arrogant in the job market.”

Employer expectations

According to the Department of Education and Training, there are currently about 99,000 Chinese students enrolled in Australian institutions, which is more than 36 per cent of the international student population. Due to tightened-up immigration policies and increasing job competition in Australia, the majority of them are expected to return home after graduation.

While Chinese employers continue to value job applicants with qualification from world-class universities such as the Group of Eight in Australia, they now expect more than just overseas experience of these graduates.

Vivian Yang is the human resources officer at DDB Guangzhou, the worldwide advertising agency’s South China branch. She said she would not employ a returnee simply because the applicant graduated from a renowned overseas university.

She stressed practical skills and creativity were important attributes for entering the advertising industry.

Ms Yang observed overseas returnees had “generally less internship experience than most domestic graduates who would already be doing internships in their second last year in universities”.

She understood the potential challenges to find internships overseas as international students, and that overseas returnees might need time to adapt themselves to domestic job markets before finding the right internship or job.

This self-adjustment process may sometimes be longer than what people in China could expect, leading to an impression that some overseas returnees are ‘seaweeds’ who only wander around and wait to be employed.

In search for a job

Jason thinks it is common for overseas returnees to experience a short period of self-adjustment during their job-hunting, and that does not necessarily represent the seaweed syndrome.

“If the period lasts for half a year to one year, I think it’s completely normal. But if two or three years afterwards you still can’t find a job, then that’s a problem of capability,” said Jason.

“But the fact is, many overseas returnees I have met took a relatively short time to adjust themselves.”

He added once these overseas returnees managed to re-localise themselves in China, he saw most of them benefiting from their overseas study experience and doing well in their jobs.

Ms Yang also spoke of why the length of time spent on finding a job would vary among overseas returnees.

“Many overseas returnees come from relatively well-off families, so they don’t have to earn money from jobs immediately… Some may take time to look for their dream jobs, because they don’t want to give up their interests and specialities.”

Parental pressure 

Meanwhile, seaweed syndrome may only affect a portion of overseas returnees who are hardly employable because they have built little knowledge or skills during their time abroad.

Christine Du, a consultant from the Chinese education agency Eduglobal, mentioned some of their student clients applied for studying in Australia not based on their capabilities or of their own will, which could result in them taking little initiative to study once they arrive in Australia.

“Recently we helped a student apply for Year 10 in Australia… It turned out she only showed up for one day during the first week of school, and soon the school asked the parents to bring her back home. Before that, this student told me of her unwillingness to study abroad, and she only did so because her father insisted.”

Ms Du claims about 20 to 30 per cent of university applicants and 40 to 50 per cent of secondary education applicants she has dealt with were driven by their parents’ will and had little idea of what they would like to do after coming to Australia.

She also found in some cases the students’ academic and personal skills were too weak to support their studying and living abroad. Additionally, they barely passed their assessments in the universities they attended in Australia.

“Occasionally, one or two students are asked to drop out by their universities because of very low grades. In such cases, the students may contact us to assist them in finding possible ways to transfer to another university,” said Ms Du.

However, most Chinese students coming to Australia with clear aims to learn and grow did not fall into that situation, said Ms Du. These other students demonstrated competent personal and academic skills.

For the ones who try, their study experience in Australia may still prove worthwhile after they return home instead of leading to a dim future of unemployable “seaweeds”.