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Why China can’t lure home overseas tech talent

After being caught up in a mass lay-off at Amazon in January, Canada-based software engineer Mark Liu boarded a flight back to his hometown in central China.

The 30-year-old decided to take a rest at home and spend some time with his parents and grandparents, while preparing to look for a new job. But he will not be looking in China.

Liu is still seeking opportunities in Canada, even though the current wave of tech lay-offs there shows no sign of ending.

“I still don’t consider returning to China to work for the time being,” said Liu, who moved to Canada in 2019.

In the past few months, as tech sector lay-offs intensified and China reopened its border after three years of zero-Covid policy, Chinese engineers based in the United States and Canada have been wondering whether to stay or go.

While China hopes to lure talent home amid a simmering tech war with the US, Chinese living overseas are being deterred by a worse work-life balance and a more stressful – even toxic – work culture.

Liu is one of them, though he does occasionally wonder if it is the right choice to stay over 9,000km from home just to escape endless overtime and oppressive management.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2014, he joined a state-owned bank in Shanghai, where his boss told the team explicitly that their “compulsory” overtime hours should be 46 each month.

“If you don’t reach the 46-hour requirement, the boss will criticise you. And in the second year, it became 50 hours,” Liu said, adding the company also frequently required employees to attend seminars after work.

“The company is trying its best to manipulate you, to restrain you and control you. It just feels that the company is not your partner and supporter, but rather you are a slave that gets paid.”

Chinese labour law stipulates that statutory working time is eight hours per day and 40 hours a week, but few employers adhere to it.

The average working week for Chinese employees was 47.9 hours as of December, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. By comparison, in January 2023, the average working week for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls in the United States was at 34.7 hours, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics said.

Chinese companies are well known for their hardcore work values, epitomised by the tech sector’s 996 culture, which refers to working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week.

While some tech companies have reduced their hours in the past two years amid fierce backlash on social media, 40 hours per week is still a distant dream for many tech workers, whom – at the same time – are considered old as soon as they reach the age of 35 and risk being deemed “redundant”.

On 1Point3Acres, an online community for Chinese tech workers overseas, posts comparing Chinese and American work cultures have sprang up regularly over the past few months, as many users are weighing up a return to China.

“Compared to the companies in the US, there is more office politics, less freedom in Chinese ones and talent is not valued,” one user said.

That could spell trouble for China, which is thirsty for tech talent, especially those with overseas research and work experience, as the country is facing heightened tech containment from the US and its allies.

China’s under-pressure semiconductor industry – from state-owned companies to private start-ups – are offering impressive pay packages to lure engineers.

A Chinese chip engineer based on the west coast of the US, who only gave his name as Neo, said he asked himself every day if should he return home.

“The answer is no,” he said. “The workload will be much bigger, but the pay may not be. So far I don’t know any young engineers who have chosen to return.”

Most returned home because they had hit the glass ceiling in the US and could secure a higher position at vice-president or executive level in a Chinese company.

“Usually they’ve already got a green card at that time, so they can either stay in China for a longer period if they want to, or go back to the US after some time,” he said.

The difference in work cultures is also an important consideration for Neo.

And as a new father, he usually attends the morning meeting in bed, before having breakfast, feeding the baby and walking the dog. Only then does he go into the office.

“I can’t imagine doing this if I go back to China,” he said. “And whenever a problem occurs here, everyone can focus on finding a solution rather than a culprit. No one competes with each other by staying in office for a longer time.”

Although Liu is happy in Canada for now, he has not ruled out returning to China in the future.

“Does anyone really want to stay far away from home, without parents, relatives and friends being around, and not being able to speak one’s mother tongue?” said Liu.

“I think everyone would want to go back to China if conditions allow, to help build their own country from a broader picture, or just to reunite with their family.” South China Morning Post

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