Written by Lotus Yang Ruan.

PRC citizen Jiajie Li (subject names are pseudonymous) decided to move to Hong Kong after completing his Master’s program in Canada. Currently a doctoral student in law at Hong Kong University, Mr. Li was born and raised in Shenzhen, southern China, and is one of the promising Chinese students determined to bring alternative perspectives to China-related studies. His thesis explores China’s “institutional development under the socialist rule of law”. But there is another reason why Li chose Hong Kong; “I leave an alternative to go to overseas again if things really get worse on the Mainland.”

Li’s concern is one shared by thousands of overseas Chinese especially young students studying abroad. Overall, the number of Chinese students returning to China upon graduation is rising especially after the 2008 financial crisis in major Western countries. But it only reflects part of the picture. Many seem to be unsure about betting their whole future on the Chinese Dream, leading People’s Daily to warn that China is experiencing “the world’s worst brain drain”. While the central government has launched major projects to lure back top Chinese specialists through preferential policies in hiring and housing subsidies, its tightening control over the media and growing intrusion into private life since 2012 is not helping the situation.

“Many of my Chinese friends or family want to go back to China because they think there are more opportunities,” said Wei Zhang, who left Wuhan for Canada through a family sponsorship program in 2013. As a current graduate student in the School of Journalism at University of British Columbia, one of her dream jobs had been to work for the China Central Television (CCTV). Zhang has since been torn between going back to China and staying in Canada because of the job opportunities and similar culture at home. But an instance where she experienced “the strong control over the press and social media in China” has changed her willingness to work in Chinese media. “One protestor (of my news story) stopped talking to me after being investigated by the local police. The videos and pictures my source sent to me on WeChat were deleted on his end.” said Zhang, “If I find my opportunities are limited here, I will go back to China; if I get a job I really like in Canada, I will probably stay.”

One of the facts that catalyzes Zhang’s decision is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent reiteration of state media’s responsibility to “reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity.” During the rare tour of China’s top three state-run media outlets in February 2016, Mr. Xi said that “The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name. They must love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action.”

Xi’s remark is just one recent highlight of China’s tightening state control over the media. The earliest sign may be the infamous “Southern Weekly incident” in 2013 where the New Year editorial of this most influential liberal newspaper was altered significantly under the pressure from the propaganda officers bypassing the normal publication flow. In the same year, China began requiring all Chinese journalists to take a test in order to get their press cards renewed, a test designed to “reflect Marxism journalistic value.” The latest media-specific regulation, announced in the same week of Xi’s remark, said that starting March 10, 2016, foreign companies — even ones that form joint ventures with Chinese partners — would not be allowed to publish and distribute online content.

Other aspects of state control over individuals’ freedom of expression are also worrying. Just before International Women’s Day on March 8, 2015, the police detained five Chinese feminists who planned to advocate against sexual harassment on public transport for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”, a charge police have used in recent years to target dissidents. In July 2015, China mass-detained more than 190 lawyers and human rights defenders, 16 among them have been formally arrested on charges of “subverting state power” or “inciting subversion of state power”. On March 17, 2016, Jia Jia, a Chinese journalist who advised his editor friend take down “an open letter to call for Xi Jinping’s resignation”, has reportedly disappeared while attempting to fly from Beijing to Hong Kong.

Many Chinese believe that the intrusion would not reach individuals who are either not important or “too big to fail”. But the arrest of Zhao Wei, a 23-year-old legal assistant to Chinese rights lawyer Li Heping, has made Zhang most worried. Ms. Zhao, in her 20s like Zhang and Li, is perhaps the youngest person subject to China’s crackdown on citizens transgressing state discourse. Meanwhile, there has been a crackdown on Big V—verified influential commentators—on social media since 2013. The latest example demonstrating no one is an exception from the party-state’s control is Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken Chinese real estate tycoon who publicly derided President Xi’s demand. “When did the people’s government turn into the party’s government? The people have been tossed into a forgotten corner,” he wrote in several posts to his tens of millions of followers on Sina Weibo. Mr. Ren, a “red inheritor” himself, was scolded by state media and his Weibo account was wiped out by the Cyberspace Administration office on the basis of “illegal messages that had a bad impact”.

Increasingly Hong Kong is demonstrating less tolerance of oppositional voices. Last year, five Hong Kong booksellers linked to books critical of the Chinese leadership disappeared and later turned up in police custody in mainland China. Their questionable confessions were broadcasted on CCTV, the state media that Zhang once aspired to work for.

Zhang is not alone in her hesitance about working in China. In a journal article published in July 2014 that examined the reasons behind the low return rate of top Chinese specialists in the US, 20 per cent of the interviewees thought that although China enjoys more freedom today, it is still not open enough for their academic pursuits. The report quoted a graduate student, “In the US, as long as your project is approved, you can get every resource you need for the research. But in China, the academic environment is less free. You have to partner with your work unit or university. If your research is too sensitive or it hurts the reputation of your institute or government, your research may loose their support and have to be abandoned.” A blue paper issued by China’s Ministry of Education reported that only six per cent of the returnees held a doctoral degree.

Push factors not only making overseas Chinese less willing to return home, but also prompting the talented and rich to leave China.

Joey Ye, a 25-year-old who works at a China-based non-profit organization, is one who aspires to leave. Born and raised in Hangzhou Ms. Ye received all her education in mainland China. “If not for my family, I would have gone abroad.” Similarly, over 75 per cent of the respondents expressed in a 2010 online survey that they would emigrate if financial situation permitted. Ye explained why, among other factors such as less pollution and better education, she wants to leave, “I would enjoy relatively more freedom overseas; I can’t access efficient software like Google, Dropbox, or SoundCloud in China nor do they have substitutes of satisfying quality.”

Those who can afford it are already making the move. It was reported that one-third of Chinese billionaires have emigrated from China. Some go so far as to describe it as “the third wave of China’s emigration”, joined mainly by the super-rich and skilled workers. To the rich, the point of moving abroad, among others, is to hedge against potential turmoil in China. “People are most fearless when they have nothing. The more they have, the stronger the fear of risks,” a Chinese real estate investor with Australia citizenship said to a Chinese magazine. At the time of the interview, he had a wealth of almost one billion yuan (US$155 million).

Undeniably, China is still attractive to many Chinese who see a greater job prospect in their professions in China or who prefer living with people that share a similar cultural background. To others, the decision is more complicated. “I think the tightening control over public opinion means that the reform has run into some political resistance, so Xi Jinping needs stronger power to suppress oppositional voices. Sometimes dictators are easier to push forward reforms, such as Deng Xiaoping.” said Yuxuan Liu, a Guangzhou-based Master’s student, “Much as I am reluctant to place all my bets on just one person, I don’t have a choice. So let’s hope for the best.”

 Lotus Yang Ruan is a MAAPPS Candidate 2016 at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. Pseudonyms are used to protect the interviewees’ identity. Image credit: CC by Joe Hunt/Flickr.