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Rise of The Sea Turtles

August 20, 2008

China's most modern citizens aren't drawing it any closer to the West.
Melinda Liu and Duncan Hewitt
Newsweek
August 9, 2008

Charles Zhang is practically the personification of hip, 21st-century
China. The flamboyant, MIT-educated entrepreneur founded and runs one
of China's two biggest Internet portals, Sohu.com. Last week he
welcomed an international swarm of revelers to an Olympic bash at
Beijing's fashionable Lan Club (décor by Philippe Starck), where he
announced his new gig during the Games: talk-show host. "I learned a
lot from Letterman and Leno while living in the States," he said confidently.

Zhang is speaking to a different audience now. He says the
anti-Western backlash that erupted in China this spring -- after
pro-Tibetan demonstrators disrupted the Olympic torch relay in
London, Paris and San Francisco"was entirely justified. He himself
called for a boycott of French goods and media after an unruly scrum
broke out over the torch in Paris. "That was the first time Chinese
people as a whole stood up to the world," he says. "It's good for
Chinese people ... That incident proves that when Chinese are upset,
they can find their voice."

Such sentiments are common on the mainland. But people like 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.

That daydream got a cold bath during the torch relay this spring,
when furious Chinese students in the West showed they could be even
more jingoistic than Chinese who had never left home—and good luck to
anyone who dared buck the trend. One courageous Duke University
freshman from the coastal city of Qingdao tried to intercede in a
campus confrontation between a dozen or so pro-Tibetan demonstrators
and a much larger group of pro-Beijing Chinese students. For her
trouble, she was called a "race traitor" and a "whore"; feces were
dumped on her parents' doorstep.

Measuring attitudes among sea turtles can be difficult, especially
with all of Chinese society changing around them. Still, some
empirical data are beginning to emerge. Prof. David Zweig, head of
the Center on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong
University of Science and Technology, is directing a research project
based on responses from thousands of returnees from campuses in
Canada, Japan and Europe. The data show they're "no less jingoistic
than those who have never gone abroad," Zweig says. "As in, 'My
country, right or wrong'." What's more, he adds: "A significant
proportion of them believe that using force to promote China's
national interests is acceptable." Bottom line? "It means the
post-1989 policy to imbue youth with nationalism through 'patriotic
education' has succeeded," Zweig says.

China has a long tradition of chauvinism, and for some sea turtles,
intimate acquaintance with Western attitudes has only intensified
their feelings of defensiveness. Author and business consultant Jim
MacGregor, who deals frequently with hai gui, says, "The richest
people here are the most anti-Western." Even as they sip cappuccino
at Starbucks or show off their new Buicks, the last thing most want
is to make over their homeland in the West's image. They're after
something far more ambitious: a China that lives up to their sense of
national greatness. The pacesetters among hai gui don't aspire to be
"modern," as Europeans and Americans often use the word—as a synonym
for Western. Instead, prosperous young returnees tend to see
themselves emphatically as modern Chinese.

Previous generations of sea turtles were patriotic in a different
way. A century or more ago, Chinese students were sent abroad to
learn science and technology from the West, and returned with a sense
of mission. "They felt the most important thing was to help Chinese
education; they wanted to teach," says dissident journalist Dai Qing,
who has just finished writing a book about that era.

Now the business opportunities available on the mainland are at least
as big a draw for returnees. But even someone like Dai, who served a
term in prison for opposing the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, says she
feels the tug of the motherland. She's just returned from her fourth
stint overseas -- a year at Australian National University studying
"relations between dictatorships and individuals." When she first
left the country in 1991 for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, many
acquaintances mistakenly assumed she'd never go home. "People say,
'Dai Qing's stupid -- after 20 years of going overseas she doesn't
even have a green card'," she says with a laugh.

Many sea turtles have their own theories about why Chinese overseas
might show a hostile streak. For one thing, they run out of patience
with Westerners' ignorance. "To be honest, when we go abroad we do
find people asking strange questions, like whether China has modern
buildings or cars," says Danny Huang, who lived in Canada and the
United States for more than a decade before returning to run an
educational charity in Shanghai. "Sometimes it's hard not to feel
they have some bias." For others, anger against the West can ease the
pangs of homesickness, suggests Shanghai University film teacher Shu
Haolun. "They need a bond to their motherland," says Shu, who studied
cinema and photography at Southern Illinois University before
returning to China in 2003. "They're being anti-Western to feel
attached to their own country."

Some of the nationalism exhibited by Chinese living abroad might also
be sustained, rather than diluted, by the Internet. "As soon as they
get online they can be totally immersed in a Chinese environment,"
says Zhao Chuan, a novelist who lived in Australia from 1987 to 2000
before coming home to write about Shanghai. "When we were studying
abroad ... occasionally you went to Chinatown to read a Chinese
paper. Now if you're in the U.K. you can easily not read English
papers or watch English TV."

Others say the returnees' driving force isn't exactly nationalism.
Instead, they argue, it reflects the extraordinary assertiveness of
young urban Chinese. Decades of strict one-child family-planning
policies have produced a generation of only-children -- "little
emperors," the Chinese call them. "Young Chinese feel they have the
right to speak out about anything," says Victor Yuan, who studied for
a year at Harvard's Kennedy School and now heads Horizon, a market
survey consultancy. Some rebel against both Chinese and Western norms
-- like architect Ma Yansong, who apprenticed under Zaha Hadid in
London and is famous for his designs mocking the regime's obsession
with huge, imposing buildings. "This generation doesn't want to
accept any ideological message, whether it's from the Communist Party
or Voice of America," says Yuan.

The power of hai gui is visibly growing. Two of China's cabinet
ministers earned their doctorates at universities outside the
country, and approximately 100 officials at the level of vice
governor or higher have studied overseas for at least a year,
according to Zweig's figures. Patriotism notwithstanding, he says his
research suggests that as Chinese spend more time outside the
country, their thinking becomes more nuanced and internationalist:
"They don't want to see China pushed around but are smart enough to
know China makes mistakes." At the Lan Club last week, Zhang said
it's time for China to prove it can do things right. "After suffering
for hundreds of years and then for 30 years scrambling to get things
right, now China's getting the respect of the world," he said.
"Chinese are gaining more self-respect, too, so they should become
more responsible." With luck, that means becoming more responsible to
the world, not just to China.

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