Some weeks back I suggested that the boom of mainland Chinese enrolling in overseas business school programs seems over – that taking a two-year leave from one’s career path in fast-growing China is less and less attractive, particularly when the overseas programs may feature material that’s becoming less and less relevant to China’s business environment.
At a dinner a few weeks ago, Steven Yuan (原舒), born and raised near Shanghai, reminded me that I’d forgotten something. Steven has just returned from two years in Stanford’s MBA program. When I mentioned that I forecast a continuing decline in mainland Chinese going out for their MBAs, he pounced.
“You’re missing a key point. Sure the business education was great – actually, we spent a fair amount of time considering China-specific factors – and I met some people I’ll be friends and colleagues with for life. But the things that made the deepest impressions on me were outside the curriculum, outside the classroom.
“Living in a place where systems are stable, where services are well-established and valued, is an eye-opener. For example – banks over there have stable operating hours, and the hours are accurately shown on their websites. Banks here change their hours, sometimes haphazardly, without notice, and the websites don’t keep up. And except for weather, airlines over there rarely cancel a flight. Delays happen of course, but nothing like here. Here we face cancellations and delays all the time.
“I understand that these China examples are symptoms of a fast-developing economy – in the case of air travel, the government can’t build enough airports, with proper support systems, to smoothly handle the rapid increase in passenger demand. The banking system faces the same challenges. Nonetheless, my experience in the Bay Area revealed all the opportunities we have to develop a truly civil society here in China. Actually, I had a dose of reverse culture shock when I came back. Things I wouldn’t have noticed before I left are now highly visible to me.
“And something else I’ve noticed since I came back. I used to hear people who had lived overseas talking about how much the experience changed them. They would encourage their family and friends to go, even if not for a degree. Now I know fully what they were talking about, and I’ve joined them as a ‘salesman’ for living overseas for a year or two. The more of us that go, the more of us will understand how a stable system works, and the benefits that such a system can bring to people. Therefore, the faster we can develop our country.”
Steven and I may both be right. Early data from the US Institute of Higher Education indicate that inbound undergraduate enrollment from China is now increasing faster than graduate enrollment. Historically, mainland Chinese going to US universities were overwhelmingly graduate students, who usually gained scholarships, TA positions or research grants to help cover otherwise prohibitive tuition. Now it seems that, as Chinese families become wealthier, more are investing their own capital in sending their younger offspring for an education beyond the walls of the local universities, and beyond the Great Wall itself. They surely see that the overseas experience has value beyond the academic work.
At the turn of the last century, the US was a brash, adolescent, socially insecure country. We looked east, across the Atlantic, to what we perceived as a more civilized and cultured Europe. As steam-powered ships made Atlantic crossings feasible, the wealthier not only took themselves to visit, they sent their offspring on Yankee versions of the Grand Tour – long visits to Europe aimed at cultural refinement (and status, of course). The tourists returned with newly tailored outfits, slightly retailored speech habits, and Continental manners on display.
Tens of millions of Chinese now have the 21st century equivalent of ocean-going steam liners – rapidly increasing wealth and regular flights abroad. Along with China’s rapid economic ascent in products, infrastructure and other hard goods, a steady increase in the number of mainland Chinese who have not just visited, but lived overseas, represents a powerful portent for China’s development of a robust services sector – a hallmark of a fully developed economy.
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.