Return of the native

By Lin Shujuan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-02 07:56
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 Return of the native

Qingtian has catapulted itself from one of the poorest counties on the mainland to one of great wealth, because of an increasing number of overseas Chinese. Tang Hongwen / For China Daily

A landlocked county's overseas Chinese can't wait to return home, whether to retire, for business or for educating their children. Lin Shujuan reports

Now the Spring Festival celebrations have ended, 70-year-old Chen Yuguang is preparing to pack and leave his hometown Qingtian, a land-locked county in East China's Zhejiang province. A Spanish citizen since the 1980s, Chen's three-month visa to China will expire soon and he must return to Spain to renew it before he can come and stay in his hometown again.

He has been doing this same exercise for the past five years. "More than 30 years ago, we would try every means to leave our hometown. Now, we'll spare no efforts to return, again and again," Chen says.

Emigration overseas has a long history in Qingtian. Isolation - it is surrounded by mountains - and a lack of resources and government funding have forced the people of Qingtian to travel afar for survival since the late 1800s.

They roamed the country trading small commodities such as stone sculptures - a local specialty - and tea. Some happened to hop on board some ferries stopping by the estuary in the nearby city of Wenzhou, another town famous for its numbers of overseas Chinese.

However, large-scale emigration did not occur until the country's reform and opening-up in 1978. Over the past three decades, Qingtian's overseas population has surged to nearly 230,000, which means half of Qingtian natives now live overseas, spread across 176 countries mostly in Western Europe.

But this has not left their hometown deserted. Over the past three decades, Qingtian has catapulted itself from one of the poorest counties on the mainland to one of great wealth. With their newly accumulated fortunes in their adopted countries, an increasing number of its overseas Chinese are heading back home either for retirement, business, investment or for their children's education.

"Every overseas Chinese now knows two things: Only in your own hometown can you find heaven and China is the future of the world economy," Chen says from a downtown Qingtian caf .

Lining both sides of the 300-m long street are modern buildings with facades reminding one of Europe in the Middle Ages. Five banks on the street, mostly privately owned, register annual foreign currency transactions of nearly $8 billion, the highest among all counties in the country.

Return of the native

Chen left for Spain in 1978 soon after that country relaxed its policy on emigration. He started off as a dish washer at a Chinese restaurant and two years later, rose to become a cook, and then started his own restaurant. He also managed to have his whole family and a few relatives migrate to Spain.

"I am no longer interested in business or investment. For people of my age, and as the first generation of overseas Chinese, I've done my part. Now I want to step back and relax," Chen says.

"Qingtian is the best place for my retirement - it is where I was born and grew up. And now it has all the modern conveniences that one can find in Europe. It still has the green mountains, yet it is no longer isolated. You have all the information you need for running a business."

The homeward flow of investment has been going on for years. China's robust momentum of economic growth and its huge financial market, that remains largely untapped, has attracted much interest from Qingtian's overseas citizens.

"Overseas Chinese from Qingtian might not be as famous as those from Wenzhou," says Xu Shengzhong, 52, a Qingtian-born businessman based in Paris. "But in Europe, we are about equal in terms of both numbers and influence."

They are as active as their Wenzhou counterparts, pouring capital into property, stocks and investment projects on the Chinese mainland and also in Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, the United States and Europe.

Many are shifting capital back to China. Last November, they decided to build a 200-m-high skyscraper as the headquarters of their overseas enterprises. Their latest sought-after investment destination is Hainan island, a planned future international tourist destination.

"People call us speculators," Xu says with a chuckle. "But it is not fair. We take risks with our hard-earned money."

Xu left for France in 1984 with the help of a relative based there. He worked in restaurants, ran a clothing business and moved from one city to another in France and Italy before finally settling down in Paris in 1999 with a successful retail business in computers.

"We are getting old and are not as shrewd and courageous as the younger generation. It will be too tough for us to compete in a foreign land," Xu says. "Besides, we all know China is the future (of the world)."

To prepare their children for the future, an increasing number of overseas Chinese are sending their children back to Qingtian for education. A downtown kindergarten class, for example, has 13 children whose Qingtian native parents are now citizens of 11 different countries.

"We have to familiarize them with Chinese language and culture for the day they will move back to China for business and life," Xu says, putting Qingtian's current overseas Chinese population into three groups.

Of those going overseas in the immediate aftermath of the reform and opening-up in the early 1980s, most had limited education and no language skills or other specialized skills.

"They started as laborers and faced the worst prejudice," Xu says.

The migrations of the 1990s happened against the backdrop of the prosperous small commodity wholesale market in Zhejiang province. These migrants typically started off in trading.

"These people never actually left China. With one foot in China and the other abroad, they build their fortune much faster than the first generation," Xu says. "Once their fortunes grew, they began investing and where else do you think is a hotter market than China?"

Those now venturing abroad are usually going for further studies, he says. "They are young and well educated and may choose to stay overseas or come back to China."

Xu calls them the third generation of emigrants and adds: "We all hope our children will be one of the third generation, rather than repeat our experience.

"We have earned our wealth, but not yet earned respect even though we are proud of what we've achieved.

"We want our children to have both."

(China Daily 03/02/2010 page18)