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This is part of a Globe and Mail series in which Beijing correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe looks at China’s present and future challenges before his return to Canada.

The 2017 class at Rotman Commerce arrived at the University of Toronto just as Xi Jinping became China’s President. As they studied, Mr. Xi consolidated power, all while pushing his country toward greater influence overseas. In western countries, views on China have darkened. Only 14 per cent of Canadians view it favourably, a record low, according to a survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute earlier this year.

But this opinion isn’t shared by China’s best and brightest.

Young Chinese people make up the majority of international students who attend Rotman Commerce. On graduation, they possess a potent set of attributes for any employer: a coveted diploma, language skills and the kind of ambition that brought them to Canada in the first place.

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But many have no intention of staying. For them, China is not just home, but a place whose embrace of modernity has created comforts not available in North America – bullet trains, lively cities with a cornucopia of eating choices – while its capital and consumer markets offer opportunity that Canada cannot match.

Chinese students like to joke about Canada as haoshan, haoshui, hao wuliao: nice mountains, nice water, very boring. China is not boring and its air and water are quickly improving, along with its salaries.

In other words, even if China grows less appealing to those outside its borders, it is becoming more desirable to many of its own. John Shi, one of the Rotman Commerce 2017 graduates, recently travelled for the first time to Suzhou. It’s been long considered a secondary centre, but “when I see the way that city has developed - oh my god, I must say it’s really better than Toronto,” Mr. Shi says.

In the U.S., the National Science Foundation tracks the percentage of doctorate recipients who intend to stay. Things have changed there, too. In 2001, 91.4 per cent of PhDs from China intended to remain in the U.S. By 2019, the number had fallen to 79.3 per cent. The remainder expected to return to China.

The rise in the overall numbers of overseas Chinese students has been vertiginous: in 1990, only 2,950 young Chinese went abroad to any country for studies; by 2004, fewer than 115,000. In 2019, more than 140,000 had study permits in Canada alone.

“A lot of these people go out on their own money, on family money — and they’re trying to get an education that will advantage them back in China,” said David Zweig, a professor emeritus of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who is writing a book China’s Search For Talent.

Where those students go has significance for Canada and its policy makers. “You can always raise the question: is it to Canada’s advantage to train these people, give them jobs and then they take their skills back to China?” Mr. Zweig said. He sees no reason for serious concern.

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But the question he poses also has ramifications for Canadian employers. If those students leave, “in some sense, that’s on us,” said Alexandra MacKay, interim vice dean for undergraduate and specialized programs at Rotman. If students see better opportunities in China, Canadian companies may need to think whether there is a need “to revisit your recruiting model to make this an attractive proposition.”

But the destination students choose also has political significance for China. Unlike many of their fellow citizens, they have the ability to choose. Graduating from a Canadian university places them on a quick track to permanent residency and citizenship.

Where they decide to go, then, is a useful barometer of how the current generation views China.

So how does the Xi Jinping cohort see China, and the world? To find out, The Globe and Mail surveyed 35 students from the Rotman Commerce class of 2017 who were born in China or grew up there. The respondents make up roughly one-third of the Chinese students at Rotman that year. Their answers, and some of their stories, are below.


Where do you see the greatest economic stability and growth?

China

86%

U.S.

8

Canada

3

Europe or elsewhere

3

Where do you see the greatest social and lifestyle stability?

Canada

57%

China

37

Europe or elsewhere

6

Where do you see the greatest economic stability and growth?

China

86%

U.S.

8

Canada

3

Europe or elsewhere

3

Where do you see the greatest social and lifestyle stability?

Canada

57%

China

37

Europe or elsewhere

6

Where do you see the greatest economic stability and growth?

China

86%

U.S.

8

Canada

3

Europe or

elsewhere

3

Where do you see the greatest social and lifestyle stability?

Canada

57%

China

37

Europe or

elsewhere

6


Starting Off

John Shi grew up in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, determined to get into the best schools. “I dreamed of going to the top finance university in China. But it’s so hard,” he said. He points to inequalities in the administration of the gaokao, the feared university placement exam. Students can score up to 750 points on the exam, but those marks are not all academic. Authorities can award bonus points to certain categories of people, and the administration of those unearned points meant that Mr. Shi would need to outperform a student in Beijing by 100 points in order to gain entry to a similar university. “The competition is really not that equal,” he says. Canada offered a more equitable academic landscape. So Mr. Shi decided to skip the gaokao altogether. He came to Canada for grade 11.


What are the primary attractions of working and living in Canada?

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

35%

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

22

Opportunities to work and build a career

18

Cost of living, including real estate

14

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

10

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

1

What are the primary negatives of working and living in Canada?

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

35%

Opportunities to work and build a career

23

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

14

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

12

Cost of living, including real estate

8

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

8

What are the primary attractions of working and living in Canada?

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

35%

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

22

Opportunities to work and build a career

18

Cost of living, including real estate

14

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

10

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

1

What are the primary negatives of working and living in Canada?

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

35%

Opportunities to work and build a career

23

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

14

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

12

Cost of living, including real estate

8

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

8

What are the primary attractions of working and living in Canada?

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

35%

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

22

Opportunities to work and build a career

18

Cost of living, including real estate

14

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

10

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

1

What are the primary negatives of working and living in Canada?

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

35%

Opportunities to work and build a career

23

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

14

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

12

Cost of living, including real estate

8

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

8

What are the primary attractions of working and living in China?

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

32%

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

23

Opportunities to work and build a career

21

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

17

Cost of living, including real estate

6

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

0

What are the primary negatives of working and living in China?

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

30%

Cost of living, including real estate

30

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

22

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

8

Opportunities to work and build a career

7

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

3

What are the primary attractions of working and living in China?

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

32%

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

23

Opportunities to work and build a career

21

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

17

Cost of living, including real estate

6

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

0

What are the primary negatives of working and living in China?

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

30%

Cost of living, including real estate

30

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

22

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

8

Opportunities to work and build a career

7

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

3

What are the primary attractions of working and living in China?

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

32%

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

23

Opportunities to work and build a career

21

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

17

Cost of living, including real estate

6

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

0

What are the primary negatives of working and living in China?

Quality of life, such as social services or the environment

30%

Cost of living, including real estate

30

Political reasons, including the legal environment and personal liberty

22

Relationship reasons, such as family and romantic partners

8

Opportunities to work and build a career

7

Personal comfort or feeling of social belonging

3


Building a career

Since the day she graduated, Zekai Li has thought about returning to China. Her family is there. She feels a stronger “bond with China, my motherland” than with Canada. She still eats Chinese food almost every day. But she has hesitated. How could she compete with people back home? With its huge population, “there are many more talents in China. You have people who work as hard as you do, are as smart as you and have more local experience than you - and they have more connections,” she said. Finding a job in China that can match her Canadian salary “is way harder than I expected.” But she has found life in Canada disappointing - when she had a back issue, the wait to get medical attention was long. “I was kind of disappointed by that,” she says. “Because in China, I can easily see a doctor that is one of the best in Shanghai.” She has felt lonely, too, a feeling exacerbated by travel restrictions that have kept her from seeing family during the pandemic. “I’m just looking for a change,” she says. She has joined groups of like-minded students in Canada and the U.S., all looking to move back to China, where life is familiar and work more thrilling. “I can see my life in Canada for the next 10 or 12 years. But at this point, I’m just more excited about a different life in China.”

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What would be the main reason to stay in Canada after your studies?

Prefer the lifestyle at this point in their lives

34%

Want to build up work experience or academic credentials that could help them move elsewhere

29

Want to secure a permanent resident card

20

Want to pursue a life and career in Canada

17

For someone with your skills, where is it easiest to find a job?

Canada

69%

China

26

For someone with your skills, where is there a better opportunity for career advancement?

China

52%

Canada

32

What would be the main reason to stay in Canada after your studies?

Prefer the lifestyle at this point in their lives

34%

Want to build up work experience or academic credentials that could help them move elsewhere

29

Want to secure a permanent resident card

20

Want to pursue a life and career in Canada

17

For someone with your skills, where is it easiest to find a job?

Canada

69%

China

26

For someone with your skills, where is there a better opportunity for career advancement?

China

52%

Canada

32

What would be the main reason to stay in Canada after your studies?

Prefer the lifestyle at this point in their lives

34%

Want to build up work experience or academic credentials that could help them move elsewhere

29

Want to secure a permanent resident card

20

Want to pursue a life and career in Canada

17

For someone with your skills, where is it easiest to find a job?

Canada

69%

26

China

For someone with your skills, where is there a better opportunity for career advancement?

China

52%

32

Canada


Finding Opportunity

For Simon Liang, the numbers tell the story: China’s population is nearly 40 times that of Canada. Its economy is more than eight times larger. “The market in China is just way greater than in Canada. That’s why I’ve come back to China,” says Mr. Liang, a graduate of the 2016 Rotman Commerce class who is the founder of Queen’s Education Group, an online high school with about 300 full-time students. After graduation, he got a job in Canada long enough to secure a permanent resident card, quitting once that was in hand. He remembers looking up at the Canadian corporate ladder and “I could see exactly where I would land in 20 years - and that is not exciting at all.” Though starting wages tend to be better in Canada, China offers fabulous wealth to those who succeed. More importantly, in Canada, “I can’t prove my value,” Mr. Liang says. In his home country, with its scale and global importance, “I feel like I can have more influence for this world.” China, he says, feels like a place of “unlimited opportunities.”


Where do you see yourself in five to 10 years?

China

46%

Canada

43

U.S.

8

Europe or elsewhere

3

Where do you see yourself in 10 to 20 years?

China

57%

Canada

29

U.S.

8

Europe or elsewhere

6

Where do you see yourself in five to 10 years?

China

46%

Canada

43

U.S.

8

Europe or elsewhere

3

Where do you see yourself in 10 to 20 years?

China

57%

Canada

29

U.S.

8

Europe or elsewhere

6

Where do you see yourself in five to 10 years?

China

46%

Canada

43

U.S.

8

Europe or

elsewhere

3

Where do you see yourself in 10 to 20 years?

China

57%

Canada

29

U.S.

8

Europe or

elsewhere

6


Weighing the options

There was a time when Chinese students would joke about studying abroad as an exercise in dujin — gilding themselves in the golden aura of international credentials. But with 1.6 million Chinese students currently enrolled overseas, a mere diploma is no longer enough. Crystal Lou quickly realized that if she wanted an edge in China, she needed to build meaningful work experience in Canada. Doing so was easy: international student university graduates are eligible for three-year work permits. That quick path to a job was one of the main reasons she came to Canada. She does still contemplate returning to China, where her parents live. China “is growing a lot faster than here. So you probably have more opportunity to go up there versus here,” she says. She won’t apply for Canadian citizenship “until I fully decide I’m staying here.” But as someone who works in private equity, she has also found virtue in Canadian stability. “Here you can value a company based on fundamentals,” she said. “That doesn’t really work in China,” where markets are more prone to influence from politics or investor mania. “For the job that I’m doing, I think Canada fits me better,” she says.

Deciding where to live is “more of a choice between what you really value,” says Emily Wang. In China, things are more convenient: public transit is cheap and near-universal, while powerful apps and mobile payments turn smartphones into remote controls for life. But the work environment can be tough. Some companies, particularly in the technology sector, demand brutally long hours. There is “more competition and maybe more pressure mentally,” Ms. Wang says. Contrast that with Canada, where “I might have more work-life balance, which is something I value.” That’s one of the reasons she stayed after graduation. In Canada, too, she senses greater freedom for the types of open political discussion that can be dangerous in China. But when it comes to personal liberty, “in daily life I don’t feel like there is that much of a difference. I felt pretty free when I was in China, and also here in Canada.” In fact, the epidemic has made China look attractive. While rolling lockdowns continued for more than a year in Ontario, people in China “are all in restaurants and travelling around.”

In the physical sense, Katrina Jiang has lived in Canada for nearly 12 years. But in many ways, she has never left China. She does not pay much attention to news or entertainment in Canada; she doesn’t so much as have a Netflix account. Instead, “100 per cent” of her media intake comes from China: celebrities on Weibo, shows on iQiyi, short videos on Douyin. “I know I have been here for a long time. I came when I was 14,” she says. “But I feel like I’m still connected to China, to Chinese culture and Chinese entertainment.” She feels the disconnect most keenly at work, where she has little to add to conversations about local events or the Blue Jays. She worries that distance from coworkers will limit her career advancement, and is mulling a return home. “I see a kind of ceiling here,”, she says. “In Canada, your soft skills can’t really compete with native speakers. You have to know their culture, you have to know their entertainment, and you have to chat to make connections. It’s hard for us if we don’t grow up in that environment.”

More: A parting view from Beijing

Nathan VanderKlippe has been The Globe’s Beijing-based correspondent since 2013 and has seen the ambitions and discontents of Xi Jinping’s China take shape. He outlines some key areas to watch around China’s political and economic ambitions as it also represses ethnic minorities and holds two Canadians captive. The Globe and Mail

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