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Ashley Feng discusses American-educated Chinese youths entering the world of politics at home

Top US colleges are packed with American students who dream of becoming senators, Secretaries of State, even President. Chinese students at these universities are likewise incredibly bright and ambitious; furthermore, the names of their schools command an unimaginable degree of deference and respect in their home country. So why don't more of them pursue public service when they return?

The most obvious barrier to public service is that central feature of Chinese society and politics: guanxi. Relationships in China have become crucial to everything from buying real estate to landing employment out of college to receiving quality medical care. The massive bureaucracy responsible for a billion people makes this especially true for the political system. "Even if you pass the entrance exam and land an entry level position, if everyone at your level has connections they will advance many times faster than you," says Matthew, a senior at UPenn from Hong Kong.

The incompatibility between local government and US-educated students is two-fold. Although local bureaucrats may respect these youth for their academic achievements, they don't consider them suitable for work in their own offices. "[After college in the US] you're seen as too naïve, too Westernized," says Jing, a Chinese senior also at UPenn.

Officials must be willing to grant favors to local business interests and order sometimes violent crackdowns to contain situations. Xiaodian, a police chief in a prosperous and well-developed coastal city, notes that he has protesters outside his office every day, sometimes every week.

Eric, a 2013 Yale graduate from northeast China, says "the municipal officials in my city are like thugs. People like you and me, how can we deal with those people? And our local government is perceived as so corrupt that no one with a US education wants to be seen interacting with them."

Eric's statement hints at perhaps the single strongest driving force behind the choice to avoid political careers. Mianzi, or face, is the ultimate goal many students in the Chinese and Chinese American communities pursue, it is what drives them to succeed in high school and college. Government jobs carry little prestige, relative to other opportunities available to a Chinese graduate of a US college. "Prestige is everything," said Matthew. "I was at a different school my freshman year. When I told people I studied in the US they all asked, 'Harvard or MIT?' and lost interest when it was neither. When I transferred to Penn, they all responded 'Oh that's amazing.' I felt like I was still the same person but their perceptions completely changed. There's so many people in China that you can't sit down with everyone and get to know them. So people read signals, and school and career are two of the biggest."

Indeed, many of these students choose to work for the Chinese branches of major Western companies. Matthew notes, "I can't think of any friends in Hong Kong or Beijing who would want to go into politics. Everyone wants to enter industry, business, finance, medicine, or law." Due to the more meritocratic structure of Western firms, well-connected young graduates believe they are accepting a greater degree of responsibility for their careers when they choose to work at these companies.

The investigation into hiring practices of JP Morgan and other major Western banks, on the other hand, reveals that foreign companies wishing to do business in China have also been willing to consider the background of applicants, sometimes just as much as their merit. But while children of the elite hold an advantage at any firm, they often have less of an edge at Western companies than they would have in the state-owned enterprises where their family members work.

A former analyst at a Chinese branch of JP Morgan who chose to speak anonymously noted that Chinese hires fell into two pools -- merit hires and relationship hires. She had the background to come in as a relationship hire, but chose to compete in the merit pool instead, because relationship hires garnered less respect and were the first to go when it came time to cutting personnel.

Wen, a Chinese sophomore at Yale whose father works for a state-owned bank, says "My father's friends tell me, 'You'll go three times as fast up the career ladder if you come back to China and work in your father's field. He has so many friends. Use them."

But rising through the ranks of national politics often requires starting at the local level. According to Jing, "the way Chinese politics and government works is that it focuses a lot on down-to-earth wisdom gained through practice. Most Chinese leaders have been through local level government. Hu Jintao was party chief of Gansu, one of the poorest provinces in China. Especially for people with our background, you're not likely to be very welcome. You need to show people you know how things work and you're not an American-educated, naive teenager."

Despite all these barriers, Young graduates truly wishing to serve society have found alternatives. In recent years, numerous young Chinese have returned to China to work in the nonprofit sector, with some even launching their own organizations.

Still, China's political system is not making the most of the talent and leadership potential of its young college graduates. There are indications, though, that this will change, albeit gradually. The problem of graduates avoiding local government jobs for their lack of prestige may be remedied by the ongoing anti-corruption campaign, which has reduced some of the most conspicuous nepotism and multiplied the likelihood of punishments for accepting bribes and other offenses.

Those rare haigui ("sea turtles," a nickname for those who return from studying abroad) like Qin Yuefei who do decide to pursue politics make it that much easier for those who follow. Jing, who is pursuing Chinese policy research in D.C., notes that hers "is a pretty new path to follow. I know what the path is like for consulting and finance, because of all the people who have gone before me, but I've had to figure out my own internships and career path. Most people gravitate toward the known paths because they fear uncertainty."

The possibility that descendants of the political elite may take the ideas they encounter abroad back home with them when it becomes their term to chart China's future remains a possible, but as of yet unrealized prospect.

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Ashley Feng is a sophomore at Yale College. Contact her at ashley.feng@yale.edu.

This article also appears in China Hands