According to Chinese government data, the number of Chinese students studying in the United States rose from fewer than 1 million in 2000 to more than 6 million in 2017. The number of these students who are returning home to China has grown at close to the same rate. In 2000, hardly any returned, but, by 2017, 4.8 million were returning.

Approximately 360,000 Chinese nationals are currently studying in the U.S., with many planning to stay in the U.S., if they can. More Chinese nationals, however, are shunning that route, choosing to return home after studying in the U.S. The “brain drain” for China is starting to reverse. Most of these students are in STEM fields and are known jokingly as “sea turtles.”

Why is this happening? Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, says that the return flow is because of “the ‘magnetic effect’ of China’s rise as a global power.” Signs of this magnetic effect include:

  • R&D expenditures in China are growing, reflecting financing trends in the U.S. China has become more prosperous with higher living standards.
  • China offers incentives to its nationals to return to China — housing allowances and health care benefits.
  • Despite current conditions, large tech companies are still expanding in China.
  • There is no longer a big caliber gap between the top scientific institutions in China and the U.S. Sea turtles staff many of China’s universities.
  • Sea turtles also staff the financial sector and most Chinese venture capitalists studied in the U.S.

Chinese students also report:

  • They no longer feel welcome in the United States because of immigration restrictions and the long wait times for green cards.
  • They want to be “home” and be better able to maintain family ties.
  • They perceive a “bamboo ceiling” in the U.S. – Chinese graduates are not making it into the C suites. While they represent 27 percent of professions in large tech companies, they are only about 14 percent of executives.
  • It is becoming harder for Chinese nationals to receive U.S. government funding because of increased scrutiny.
  • They fear that OPT may be eliminated and that this “would restrict the smooth flow of students from American schools to American companies. . . .”

Chinese students are not the only ones feeling unwelcome in the U.S. these days. International student enrollment is down at U.S. universities. That threatens not only some U.S. universities, particularly those in the Midwest, but also threatens the U.S. economy in general, which relies on immigrants as a driver of innovation. Despite the Administration’s desires, the “best and brightest” may be choosing to stay home, return home, or take their skills to other, currently more welcoming countries.