What has been shifting in China since the implementation of a “dynamic zero-COVID policy”?

Zhenxuan (Kiddler) Chen, Regional Director for the Chinese Market

Image of Zhenxuan Chen

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, China has been following a zero COVID tolerance policy to prioritize the health and safety of its residents. China's “dynamic zero-COVID" strategy is designed to “bring COVID-19 under control at the minimum social cost in the shortest time possible to effectively protect the health, normal life and production of the Chinese people to the maximum.” While China has a significant number of elderly people and individuals with underlying health conditions, its medical resources are relatively scarce compared to its overall population.  Thus, China believes that it needs to stick to its 'zero-COVID policy' despite the challenges it creates for economic growth, international mobility, employment, etc. 
GMAC’s team in China relocated to Shanghai in the fall of 2019 and has witnessed and experienced those challenges first-hand along with our b-school colleagues and candidates in the country. As the director of the China team, allow me to share an overview of the current market shifts driven by the pandemic to endemic transition and ongoing policy impact.

Most Chinese students have not given up on studying abroad, despite health and safety concerns impacting international mobility.

From GMAC research results and past local market surveys, we have seen concerns of mobility due to the COVID situation. The research indicated the prospective study abroad Chinese candidate had a preference to “wait and see” regarding pursuing graduate management education or to choose a destination close to China.  Their behavior has mirrored their survey responses.  For example, we saw increased competition among Chinese candidates for Hong Kong based programs and GMAT score sending to Hong Kong schools in 2021 exceeded the records of 2019 (pre-COVID). However, survey results from New Oriental, a Chinese owned study abroad agency, support the position of students waiting to see what happens in the market. Their survey showed that more than 90% of prospective Chinese study abroad students indicate they still plan to study overseas.

The China Ministry of Education (MOE) recently announced that the number of college graduates in 2022 is expected to reach 10.76 million, an increase of 1.67 million year-on-year. Normally these graduates could choose to find a job or continue to pursue a Master’s degree. Considering the job vacancy and capacity of enrollment provided by Chinese schools, I tend to believe that study abroad will be an ideal choice soon if COVID is no longer perceived to be a serious problem for candidates and their parents.

More overseas graduates are returning to China but are facing a tough job market.

According to an MOE announcement, around two million or 80% of Chinese students who studied abroad between 2016-2019 have returned to China after graduating overseas. China's “dynamic zero-COVID policy” and strong economic growth over the past years have inspired more returnees to seek job opportunities and business networks on the mainland.

Yet every coin has two sides. As more overseas talent returns to China, China's job market has become more crowded. At the same time, employers' requirements for this talent have become higher. Compared to domestic graduates, overseas graduates usually have much higher salary expectations as studying abroad is certainly an investment. Thus, it’s a difficult decision for those returnees to take a job with a lower salary. For those business schools that have been recruiting Chinese candidates, I would suggest not only highlighting your program or school's competitive advantage but also guiding these student to the career development services of your school which could further support them in enhancing their skills to get a job (local or global) after graduating. 

Woman looking out a window onto a city

The strategy for recruiting students from outside the country to study in China is shifting to enlarge the prospective student pipeline from “local” talent.

Since the onset of the pandemic, China has closed its border to international students, therefore foreigners will find it difficult to access the country. Throughout 2022, only a few groups of students from select countries have been able to enter China. Even though the return is being announced, returning groups of Chinese students are still limited, and currently there isn’t a clear timeline for future arrangements of accessing China.

This challenge directly impacts the ability of full-time global MBA and EMBA programs in China to recruit foreign candidates. Thus, Chinese business schools have been shifting their recruitment strategy, putting more resources towards recruiting returning Chinese citizens and foreigners who work at local companies. Over the past two years, more Chinese citizens noticed the strong economic growth and success of COVID measures in China, and therefore returned to China for career/business development. This segment of the target audience has become an important strategic pillar of GME recruitment and marketing to fill the gap from overseas foreigners. Meanwhile, Chinese business schools also began launching campaigns to influence foreigners who work or run businesses in China through international media publishers or local foreign communities. By doing this, business schools could build a diversified candidate pipeline in country instead of only focusing on the international candidate who needs to access China during border restrictions.

Despite facing uncertainties and challenges brought by the pandemic, China insists on the “Dynamic zero-COVID" to prioritize people’s life and health. With the progress of epidemic prevention and control across the country, we have seen China roll out strong financial stimulus measures in order to stabilize the economy or even grow it. China has been utilizing its advantage to minimize the negative impact and we should expect a revival soon. As stressed by Premier Li during a recent national teleconference on China’s economy:  “We must seize the opportunity and try our best to bring the economy back on track”.