Charles Zhang is practically the personification of hip, 21st-century China. The flamboyant, MIT-educated entrepreneur founded and runs one of China's two biggest Internet portals, Sohu.com. Last week he welcomed an international swarm of revelers to an Olympic bash at Beijing's fashionable Lan Club (décor by Philippe Starck), where he announced his new gig during the Games: talk-show host. "I learned a lot from Letterman and Leno while living in the States," he said confidently.
Zhang is speaking to a different audience now. He says the anti-Western backlash that erupted in China this spring—after pro-Tibetan demonstrators disrupted the Olympic torch relay in London, Paris and San Francisco—was entirely justified. He himself called for a boycott of French goods and media after an unruly scrum broke out over the torch in Paris. "That was the first time Chinese people as a whole stood up to the world," he says. "It's good for Chinese people ... That incident proves that when Chinese are upset, they can find their voice."
Such sentiments are common on the mainland. But people like Zhang were supposed to be different: he's what Chinese call a hai gui—"sea turtle"—referring to someone who has lived overseas. (The phrase is a pun on haiwai guilai, meaning "returned from overseas.") Their numbers are growing by the tens of thousands every year, and as the sons and daughters of the elite, they have an outsize influence once they move back to China. In the West there's long been an assumption that this cohort would import Western values along with their iPods. They were envisioned as the bridge to a more open, liberal, Western-friendly China.
That daydream got a cold bath during the torch relay this spring, when furious Chinese students in the West showed they could be even more jingoistic than Chinese who had never left home—and good luck to anyone who dared buck the trend. One courageous Duke University freshman from the coastal city of Qingdao tried to intercede in a campus confrontation between a dozen or so pro-Tibetan demonstrators and a much larger group of pro-Beijing Chinese students. For her trouble, she was called a "race traitor" and a "whore"; feces were dumped on her parents' doorstep.
Measuring attitudes among sea turtles can be difficult, especially with all of Chinese society changing around them. Still, some empirical data are beginning to emerge. Prof. David Zweig, head of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, is directing a research project based on responses from thousands of returnees from campuses in Canada, Japan and Europe. The data show they're "no less jingoistic than those who have never gone abroad," Zweig says. "As in, 'My country, right or wrong'." What's more, he adds: "A significant proportion of them believe that using force to promote China's national interests is acceptable." Bottom line? "It means the post-1989 policy to imbue youth with nationalism through 'patriotic education' has succeeded," Zweig says.
China has a long tradition of chauvinism, and for some sea turtles, intimate acquaintance with Western attitudes has only intensified their feelings of defensiveness. Author and business consultant Jim MacGregor, who deals frequently with hai gui, says, "The richest people here are the most anti-Western." Even as they sip cappuccino at Starbucks or show off their new Buicks, the last thing most want is to make over their homeland in the West's image. They're after something far more ambitious: a China that lives up to their sense of national greatness. The pacesetters among hai gui don't aspire to be "modern," as Europeans and Americans often use the word—as a synonym for Western. Instead, prosperous young returnees tend to see themselves emphatically as modern Chinese.
Previous generations of sea turtles were patriotic in a different way. A century or more ago, Chinese students were sent abroad to learn science and technology from the West, and returned with a sense of mission. "They felt the most important thing was to help Chinese education; they wanted to teach," says dissident journalist Dai Qing, who has just finished writing a book about that era.
Now the business opportunities available on the mainland are at least as big a draw for returnees. But even someone like Dai, who served a term in prison for opposing the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, says she feels the tug of the motherland. She's just returned from her fourth stint overseas—a year at Australian National University studying "relations between dictatorships and individuals." When she first left the country in 1991 for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, many acquaintances mistakenly assumed she'd never go home. "People say, 'Dai Qing's stupid—after 20 years of going overseas she doesn't even have a green card'," she says with a laugh.
Many sea turtles have their own theories about why Chinese overseas might show a hostile streak. For one thing, they run out of patience with Westerners' ignorance. "To be honest, when we go abroad we do find people asking strange questions, like whether China has modern buildings or cars," says Danny Huang, who lived in Canada and the United States for more than a decade before returning to run an educational charity in Shanghai. "Sometimes it's hard not to feel they have some bias." For others, anger against the West can ease the pangs of homesickness, suggests Shanghai University film teacher Shu Haolun. "They need a bond to their motherland," says Shu, who studied cinema and photography at Southern Illinois University before returning to China in 2003. "They're being anti-Western to feel attached to their own country."
Some of the nationalism exhibited by Chinese living abroad might also be sustained, rather than diluted, by the Internet. "As soon as they get online they can be totally immersed in a Chinese environment," says Zhao Chuan, a novelist who lived in Australia from 1987 to 2000 before coming home to write about Shanghai. "When we were studying abroad ... occasionally you went to Chinatown to read a Chinese paper. Now if you're in the U.K. you can easily not read English papers or watch English TV."
Others say the returnees' driving force isn't exactly nationalism. Instead, they argue, it reflects the extraordinary assertiveness of young urban Chinese. Decades of strict one-child family-planning policies have produced a generation of only-children—"little emperors," the Chinese call them. "Young Chinese feel they have the right to speak out about anything," says Victor Yuan, who studied for a year at Harvard's Kennedy School and now heads Horizon, a market survey consultancy. Some rebel against both Chinese and Western norms—like architect Ma Yansong, who apprenticed under Zaha Hadid in London and is famous for his designs mocking the regime's obsession with huge, imposing buildings. "This generation doesn't want to accept any ideological message, whether it's from the Communist Party or Voice of America," says Yuan.
The power of hai gui is visibly growing. Two of China's cabinet ministers earned their doctorates at universities outside the country, and approximately 100 officials at the level of vice governor or higher have studied overseas for at least a year, according to Zweig's figures. Patriotism notwithstanding, he says his research suggests that as Chinese spend more time outside the country, their thinking becomes more nuanced and internationalist: "They don't want to see China pushed around but are smart enough to know China makes mistakes." At the Lan Club last week, Zhang said it's time for China to prove it can do things right. "After suffering for hundreds of years and then for 30 years scrambling to get things right, now China's getting the respect of the world," he said. "Chinese are gaining more self-respect, too, so they should become more responsible." With luck, that means becoming more responsible to the world, not just to China.