China's Sea Turtles

The article seeks to analyse the reasons for the chauvinistic sentiments among the young generation of Chinese who are studying or have studied overseas and returned to China.

“Such sentiments are common on the mainland. But people like (Charles) Zhang were supposed to be different: he's what Chinese call a hai gui—‘sea turtle’--referring to someone who has lived overseas. (The phrase is a pun on haiwai guilai, meaning ‘returned from overseas’.) Their numbers are growing by the tens of thousands every year, and as the sons and daughters of the elite, they have an outsize influence once they move back to China. In the West there's long been an assumption that this cohort would import Western values along with their iPods. They were envisioned as the bridge to a more open, liberal, Western-friendly China.”

But as things turn out, that assumption is proven flawed. The “sea turtles” are found to be no less jingoistic than those who have never gone abroad.

David Zweig, an academic researcher, attributes such kind of nationalistic fervor to the success of China’s post-1989 policy of patriotic education. Others say that it has something to do with their homesickness and a yearning to be attached to their homeland. Some “sea turtles” themselves blame it on the ignorance of Westerners which cause them to lose their patience. There are still others who say that it is not nationalism, but rather, a sense of assertiveness and reluctance to conform that is felt by these young people. Of course, the Internet has been acting as a catalyst to the build-up of these sentiments.

While those may all be legitimate reasons, one wonders if the jingoistic (bordering on xenophobic) sentiments could plausibly be linked to an attitude problem of these “sons and daughters of the elite”, at least in some cases?

It may be safe to assume that many of the “sea turtles” come from relatively well off backgrounds (apparent from the fact that they can afford an overseas education). Their relative affluence as well as their anticipation of eventually returning to China to land lucrative jobs may have unwittingly lessened their willingness to tolerate or even try to understand the societies they live in. It may also have brewed conceit and hostility in their attitude towards foreigners, especially when they face adversity or feel humiliated, easily causing them to harbor resentment which could be amplified by cultural differences between foreigners and themselves (this story tells of one such case). They only need an excuse for an outlet for such resentment. As it happened, a perfect chance emerged when the Western media began covering the Tibet riots, as it did again when the Olympic torch relay got disrupted in France. It seems easy to conflate patriotism with unleashing of anger for personal reasons.

While the previous generations of “sea turtles” are noted for their sense of mission, who wanted to help with educating their countrymen on their return to their homeland, young returnees nowadays, with a few exceptions perhaps, are preoccupied with gratifying their own personal desires and ambitions under a predatory capitalistic system which rewards corruption rather than punishes it (except for a few showcase examples). Thus, it is not surprising that the richest people tend to be the most anti-Western (or the most “patriotic”), as noted in the article.

The “sea turtles” belong to a solipsistic generation as described in the Times article entitled “China’s Me Generation”. Young urban Chinese are the chief beneficiaries of her economic success and they have a stake in upholding the status quo in China. It is the first in the world’s history in which the majority are single children as a result of China’s one-child policy. They have known nothing but peace and prosperity since their birth and may be too obsessed with consumerism to have any interest in issues that don’t concern their own immediate material well being, issues like human rights, social justice and equality.

It seems therefore that the West’s assumption that a freer, more open and more democratic China will naturally follow her success with instituting a free market economy is off the mark by a long shot. Having said that, perhaps a silver lining may still exist despite all, and it is, as Zweig pointed out, that as young Chinese spend more time outside the country, their thinking will become more nuanced and more internationalist.

Charles Zhang, a typical “sea turtle” and a successful entrepreneur (he’s the founder of the internet portal Sohu.com), says it’s time for China to prove that it can do things right and he expects that as China gains more respect in the world, Chinese people will gain more self-respect too and so should become more responsible.

Let’s just hope that he is referring to a responsibility that is directed firstly towards Chinese society as a whole, in which rampant corruption, abuses of power in local governments, abject rural poverty and gross injustices need to be urgently addressed, and secondly towards the world. Being patriotic, after all, means pledging loyalty to one’s countrymen collectively and not oneself.