The Death of an Overseas Returnee

Haigui (海归) – Overseas Returnee: People returned to their home country (China) after finishing overseas study, mostly in order to start enterprises. This term is quite popular in mainland China. Because Haigui (海归) has the same pronunciation as “sea turtle” (海龟), therefore the use of “sea turtle” also referred to this group of people.

20091028-dr-tu-01 Tu Xuxin 涂序新

(originally from Southern Metropolis Daily, but the link is dead now, here is a copy)

Suicide note:

“At this moment, I think my original decision was made too rashly and I have never expected what had happened afterwards. I would like to thank friends for the advice before everything. The reality of the China’s academic circles: cruel, faithless and heartless, although I overlooked all of these because of my self-righteousness.”

No one knew how Dr. Tu went from 3rd floor to 11th floor and leaped. This 32-year-old overseas returnee just returned to China from Chicago, United Sates in June this year. Before his return, his tragedy had no signs, as if a bright future was waiting for him.

However on September 17th 2 am, after written a 6 page suicide note, he walked on top of the Zhejiang University Comprehensive Building where he lived. His unemployed wife and 3-year-old child should have been asleep, not knowing the disaster was about to happen.

One thing for sure, during the time when Dr. Tu was teaching at Zhejiang University, almost nobody expected his unnatural death. According to the information provided by Zhejiang University, he just submitted the application applying for the title of associate professor 6 days before his leap.

From Chicago to Hangzhou

1977, Tu Xuxin (涂序新) was born in an intellectual family. From his childhood to his young adult life, he was always the top of his peers. After graduated from high school, he was sent to Tsinghua University Irrigation department. Before “9/11” he got his visa and a full scholarship to Northwestern University in U.S. studying civil engineering. 6 years later he earned his PhD and stayed in school for 2 more years of postdoctoral research.

According to information provided by Zhejiang University, Tu Xuxin contacted the University geotechnical institute via email in January. In April of this year, Zhejiang University sent the recruitment notice to Dr. Tu. In Zhejiang University’s email, guaranteed Dr. Tu a teaching position but the specific title was not clear.

Early in June, Dr. Tu finished his postdoctoral work early at Northwestern University and returned to China. He told his wife Hejing (何晶, not her real name) that there were projects waiting for him in China.

Hejing was also a PhD recipient in the United Sates. She went to a well-known university in northern China for business related major. After graduated from college, she followed her husband to United States. She also got a full scholarship and earned her PhD degree. People who know Tu said, Dr. Tu was a loyal son, his sister’s family lives in Hangzhou, parents are in Jinghua, going back to Hangzhou was his first choice. Everything was as if going towards the right direction. Their daughter was taking care of by the wife Hejing’s parents in Jinghua. A family of three could be reunited in Hangzhou.

Talent Strategy

Dr. Tu was one of the 1000 academic cores introduced to the “1311 Plan”, his monthly income was 2,000 yuan (about 295 US dollars) after deduction of rent.

The head of Zhejiang University Party Committee’s Propaganda Department Shen Wenhua (沈文华) told the reporter, Zhejiang University “1311 Plan”, is to build a structured innovation team, the composition of this team is 100 “Masters”, 300 core personnel, 100 innovation team and 1000 academic cores. He added that “masters” might be an inaccurate title, but they are at least at the head professor level. Core personnel are professors already have accomplishments, and Dr. Tu was one of the 1000 academic cores. There were thousands of professors in Zhejiang University but not every professor can be part of the academic cores. In other words, he felt that the Institute of Technology valued Dr. Tu’s academics very much.

Dr. Tu returning China has its historical background. Last century “sent by the state” was replaced with scholarships. The most top-notch group of students went abroad armed with GRE red books to the United States, Britain, Germany in this order became the top choices of students. Dr. Tu went to Northwestern University, one of the U. S. elites, located near Lake Michigan in Chicago, also has campuses in Chicago downtown area.

After the abroad wave, in recent years, China’s returnee wave was shaped up. Ministry of Education data showed that in 2004 there were more than 20,000 returnees, in 2006 more than 40,000 students returned to the mainland China. In 2008, with the global financial crisis, this figure broke over 50,000.

Working in universities or research institutes is an important tributary for the returnees. Ten years ago, with quite a few returnees who graduated from a prestigious school in the U.S. going into a Chinese well-known institution, the starting title was already professor. However now days, the market condition is not so good anymore.

Schools should take the initiative to “build the nest” to attract the returnees, mainly targeting the overseas senior scholars who have teaching credentials. For example, in Zhejiang University Zijing campus dormitory area, there were hundreds of houses which were not sold or distributed yet. But, Zhejiang University said those were prepared for the “masters”.

Young people need a development process, Shen Wenhua said, it’s not like once come in school and able to take a leading role right the way. The higher the qualifications are, the more resources one shall have.

Although when Dr. Tu was talking to his Chicago friends, already foresaw the difficulties. However, the difficulties seemed much more than he imagined.

Dr. Tu did not get a project right the way as he expected after his return. In June he returned to his home town in Jinhua, Zhejiang and rested for some time.

In July, Dr. Tu went back to Hangzhou, on the 28th he rented the teacher’s apartment provided by Zhejiang University. School information indicated that Dr. Tu’s apartment was 57 square meters. Later in Dr. Tu’s obituary also mentioned this apartment, “including an independent kitchen and bathroom, also TV, refrigerators, air conditioners, microwave oven, induction cooker, beds, tables, chairs and other furniture and electronics.”

This is the comprehensive building Dr. Tu lived for 2 month then leaped from the top of it. It is located across the street from Zhejiang University Yuquan Campus entrance, one of the last century late 90s buildings. From the simple but fairly clean hallway, you can see the old campus, lush trees created shades, spirited students walked around, banners of academic exchange were hanging all over the campus.

There is a long hallway on each floor of the comprehensive building. The ones that are side by side are transition housing for the young teachers. Building area is 50-60 square meters, the inside area is about 40 square meters, just like three lined-up matchboxes, respectively, from outside to inside, the kitchen, living room and bedroom. Zhejiang University Personnel staff told the reporter, the monthly rent for the apartment is 2,000 yuan, slightly lower than market price. It was deducted from his wages. They said Dr. Tu used to live some other place before moving to here.

Zhejiang University Deputy Director in charge of personnel, Zhu Xiaoyun (朱晓芸) told the reporter that the Dr. Tu’s compensation was given as a lecturer. Also gave him 40,000 yuan housing allowance, to support him to buy a house in Hangzhou, to settle down. This was the special treatment Zhejiang University provided for to attract talents. In addition Dr. Tu also had all the benefits of a university faculty, including 10 years in Zhejiang University to receive 1,500 yuan per month in housing allowance. If Dr. Tu becomes a professor in the future, this number will double. His income also includes 1,000 yuan allowance for young teachers, the monthly salary by the state and school subsidies. His monthly income should have been enough for him to teach at ease.

However this may be only an ideal opinion, Dr. Tu’s daughter soon will be in kindergarten, and now days kindergarten in major cities in mainland China could be costly, more expensive then elementary school. Dr. Tu’s wife Hejing also had not been successful. She could not stay in Hangzhou, lived in hometown taking care of the daughter while looking for work. The fact is Dr. Tu has an entire family on his shoulders.

Although the husband and wife were all students studied aboard with full scholarship in the United States, but they had a child to support, they were not able to save a considerable amount of money in the foreign country, no enough to serve as a buffer for their returns.

And in so called heaven on earth – Hangzhou, housing prices are no less than in Shanghai. Although the new campus of Zhejiang University, Zijin is not a favored area, the price per square meter was still almost equal to 20,000 yuan.


According to his relatives, he told the family that his wage was paid as an associate professor.

Before Dr. Tu’s accident, his work was still carried out step by step, he served as the 2009 freshmen class teacher. However, people did not know, since August, he started to have anxiety, and began to take drugs to help him sleep.

And nobody knew where Dr. Tu’s anxiety came from. Since he moved to comprehensive building, most of the time he stayed alone.

One thing is for sure, even with anxiety, Dr. Tu did not give up. According to school records:

September 1 – 8, Dr. Tu went to the job training for new teachers.

September 8, Zhejiang University started the second half of professional and technical positions audits.

September 11, Dr. Tu filled out his relevant information on the “Professional and technical positions hiring system” applying for associate professor position.

At least, he still had hope.

That was then. 6 days later, which was at 2 am on September 17, Dr. Tu jumped from the 11th floor roof. He wrote a 6 page suicide note, in the note he expressed regrets to his wife, daughter, parents and sister.

The night before, Hejing and her husband also talked over the phone, she was going to go see him the next morning.

Dr. Tu’s academic potential has been recognized. If you use Google scholar to search his published 6 papers. Of which three made to the core journals in the SCI. Tu’s research focused on the geotechnical engineering field calculation methods and models. He should have had broad prospects in the developing China.

Professional Title and Jumping of a building

Rumors on the internet said Zhejiang University gave Dr. Tu verbal commitments but failed to fulfill with actions. However school disagreed.

What did Dr. Tu experience from September 11 applying for an associate professor position to September 17 jumping off a building at the end?

His death was originally handled by Zhejiang University, Yuquan campus police station. Reporter contacted person in charge at Hangzhou public security bureau, the district branch of the political department. He said two days later the police talked to his friends, relatives, neighbors and school and ruled out the possibility of homicide.

The end of September, School website posted an obituary of Dr. Tu, explained the cause of death was “due to illness Dr. Tu fell to his death from a building” But school did not explain why “illness” and “falling from a building” were tied together. Netizens also responded heavily on this obituary, read more here.

After Dr. Tu’s death, all kinds of speculations on the internet were still fermenting. Some blamed school, some blamed family and some attributed to Dr. Tu’s psychological issues. People stood in their different point of views and guessed. Most of the rumors on the internet said Zhejiang University gave Dr. Tu verbal commitments but failed to fulfill with actions.

Chief of Construction Institute party and government office Jing Weiyong (金卫勇) told the reporter that after the incident, they looked through the emails between Dr. Tu and school. In the emails he was always referred as “teacher” not “Associate Professor”.

The School denied the possible link between Dr. Tu’s death and the evaluation process, said early September was just applying period, faculty of engineering has not released documents confirming the selection criteria.

Dr. Tu’s 6 page suicide note was never released to the public, we only know one this one passage from the note “At this moment, I think my original decision was made too rashly and I have never expected what had happened afterwards. I would like to thank friends for the advice before everything. The reality of the China’s academic circles: cruel, faithless and heartless, although I overlooked all of these because of my self-righteousness.”

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  2. So sad, but this story doesn’t make sense. Cases like these are usually outliers that involve existing mental and psychological problems.

  3. How slowly news trickles. Dr. Tu died more than a month ago, and I wrote about it on my blog 2 weeks late. Only now do the newspapers take notice.

  4. Goes to show that education is NOT the key!

    China also has the highest rate of suicide among women.

    The modern life is not fulfilling for most. It is just empty action after empty action. What is the goal? To be ‘better’ (whatever that means) or have more things than your neighbor or friends? No. Life is about having a real foundation, a real life compass. An important thing is to be content.

  5. It’s hard to come back to China after studying in the West. My fiance is Chinese we moved to China in February in 2008 when he had completed his Masters degree. He had been in the UK for 7 years. He works for his mum’s company and finds it hard to adapt to Chinese life. He always wanted to work in the company and use the skills he learned in the UK to develop the business. It turns out, he hates doing business Chinese way and finds it hard to adapt to this way of doing things. Any ideas contrary to his mother’s are criticised until he gives up hope of ever being able to implement them. For example, he has a guilty conscience making contact’s, maintaining customer loyalty and compensating clients with by expensive dining and hongbao. He feels this is so wasteful especially as the market is getting smaller and smaller. He would rather invest the money, get that business on the stock market and improve the service and also conditions for the workers – he feels sad for the people under him who work 7 days a week on production line around 1000 per month. When money is blown on baijiu and wild pangolin soup. He does not understand why he had to go abroad and learn new ideas gain a new way of thinking, rationality when he would never be allowed to make a difference!
    What do some parents think when they send their kids abroad? i have no idea!

    1. Anon, yes it is true you might have a hard time to adopt the way Chinese people do business once you were educated in the west. But I think your fiance is at a good position. Giving hongbao, having expensive dinners, going to KTV… are indeed very wasteful but that is how Chinese people do business, at least right now… It is not going to go away just yet so one must do these things if you want to have a successful business in China. Now this does not mean China’s business culture/ corruption will never change, in order for things to change, it takes time and it takes new generation of people like you and your fiancé and your children and your children’s children… To make a different is not just one person or one day, even thought today you still need to follow the ridicule rules; it is then just another thing you need to do to make a difference. It was essential that you and your fiancé studied abroad, it gives your guys more perspective, or else he would have just been doing the same things and not have the thinking and rationality he is having today.

      1. Jews are the best businessmen in the world. They never have the problem as Anon’s fiance met. When in Rome, do as Romans.

    2. Anon, while i agree that the process seems wasteful, sadly this similar process is done everywhere in the world but often just not as out in the open. Your husband probably has not operated at the management level in the US or “west” that he gets to view now in CHina, so it is likely some of these frustrations stem from his idealism of how things are done in the “west” when in fact, sadly, “guanxi”, “benefits”, and even “bribes” happen almost everywhere.

      But as the other poster pointed out, the position he holds now will teach him more about how things need to get done now, and will allow him to be inthe position to make changes when the time comes. Making immediate changes is noble and idealist, but probaby not to teh best interest of teh company and its employees as he (and you I assume) wishes they would be.

      1. Thanks for your comments. I know we are definitely lucky to be in this situation. I wouldn;t have liked to be in the same position as the guy in the article. Heaven knows how we would have found decent employment here otherwise!
        It is a case of when in Rome but this mentality doesn’t make it easier to relinquish your dreams – even the less ambitious ones. I just think Chinese parents in my in-laws position are seriously misinformed about sending their children abroad to study. Maybe it’s to do with the prestige and reputation of more developed countries or because it is more expensive than domestic schooling that appeals more. His greatest acheivement from being abroad is undoubtedly mastering the English language but my fiance doesn;t really need to speak English as most foreign companies have chinese colleagues who do the banquets and guanxi and could outsource tasks requiring English to an interpreter for small monthly wage. As his mother/ boss is not open to these different ideas, my fiance would have been better studying management at a Chinese university as he would have graduated 4 years ago and would have been further along his career path, would have more contacts, wouldn;t have such a heightened sense of social responsibility, he wouldn’t resent not having a weekend and the fact that when we have kids he won;t have much free time to spend with them and would be used to the authorative fillial piety system. No matter how much we ressent doing things this way, we can;t, however, regret his time in the UK because he wouldn;t have met me otherwise. You’ve just to try and put your disappointment behind you and hope that things can get better! I can’t see this happening anytime soon. As key said it maybe will be in my Children’s time.

  6. The man left behind an unemployed wife and a young daughter. His actions were cowardly and craven, and others will have to bear the burden. The death of a close love one for a child is very, very tragic, and my heart breaks for his family. A Northwestern University education is good indeed, and he certainly could have parlayed that into something more had he been more patient and resource; the onus was on him to explore options further afield.

    The vast majority of people in Zhejiang who make 3000 RMB a month, no matter if even in Wenzhou, live decent, respectable and dignified lives.

    As far as studying abroad giving one “perspective”, I fail to see how that helped this young man. One might surmise that, far from being made independent by Northwestern, he was coddled there, as they provide a cushy environment. And the world of U.S. academia is every bit as cut-throat and merciless as that of China, with the benefits (for the non-tenured) being decidedly lower.

    So put away the violins, this man deserves no dirge played at wake. Sorry if that sounds cold, but if you want to commiserate, do so with those he left behind, not the departed.

    1. I think you may need more knowledge about mental diseases like depression. Suicide is just the outcome. Severe depression is the direct drive. However, Dr. Tu was not depressed in the US. It’s hard to believe a depression patient can fulfill his PhD study and postdoctoral research. Scientific research requires focus of attention on ongoing work, but depressive mood causes intrusive thought which usually severely hampers people’s normal life.

      A suicidal incident is not surprising. Everyday, thousands of people suicide in the world. But Dr. Tu’s death is not a simple case. It reflects something unfair that is still undisclosed.

  7. Before everyone continues making generalizations and stereotypes , let me repeat, cases like these are outliers usually due to severe psychological illness. This guy had a bright future regardless of how ZJU treated him. You don’t just leave that and his family behind so suddenly.

    It’s sad even a story like this brings out the china bashers.

    1. You are right about Dr. Tu suffering from depression. However, your claim of China-bashing is flawed because this isn’t the first time the same stunt has been pulled before. Graduates from universities like Stanford had been in similar situations. It is just that they didn’t commit suicide, so nobody paid attention, until Dr. Tu killed himself.

  8. Why would a someone as bright as him return to China to work for 2000RMB? So the school sucks and treated him poorly, why doesn’t he just leave? If he did any research before coming to China, he should know people in the school system are all liars. I’ve read many reports of foreigners going to China to teach English only to find nothing written on their contracts were true. Maybe its more than the superficial evidence given in the reports:

    Here’s what I think. He’s a bright, loyal family guy. He returns to China to be a professor. He’s not doing it for the money, he wants to make China a better place. He starts teaching and it was not what he expected. He also did not expect to fall in love with a student. The female student wants him to leave his wife and family. He doesn’t know what to do and cannot talk to anyone about his situation. He has ashamed and disgraced his family. He goes home daily to see the wife he no longer loves. Depression occurs. He takes drugs which only make him more sad. The vicious cycles repeat over and over again until something deep within his intellectual head SNAPS.

    What do you guys think?

    1. haha, good imagination Andrew, although no website or BBS has mentioned about him falls in love with some student… good one though.
      There are websites talked about his family (his wife and his wife’s family) is to blame, they constantly called him a loser, and “3 have nos.”
      1. Have no house
      2. No cars
      3. No income.

      1. This only further proves my theory!

        Key, by the way, you’re doing a wonderful job on this website! I’ve been reading this blog from just when you started. I really like how you are actively involved with posting comments now.

    2. “What do you guys think?”

      I thinke he killed him self because he was ashamed of China. He was proud to be Chinese people and left USA, then he learned the truth about China and could not live knowing this.

  9. Tu Xuxin suicide is tragic and his family deserves sympathy. It is sad that he did not have the spiritual strength and inner resources to persevere through what were the tough years of getting his academic career started.

    The reported excerpt from his suicide note,

    “At this moment, I think my original decision was made too rashly and I have never expected what had happened afterwards. I would like to thank friends for the advice before everything. The reality of the China’s academic circles: cruel, faithless and heartless, although I overlooked all of these because of my self-righteousness.”

    calls to mind the adage “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”


    “On 20 December 1973, the Wall Street Journal quoted Sayre as: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Political scientist Herbert Kaufman, a colleague and coauthor of Sayre, has attested to Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, that Sayre usually stated his claim as “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low”, and that Sayre originated the quip by the early 1950s.

    Many other claimants attach to the thought behind Sayre’s Law. The bitterness of academic life was memorably noted by Max Weber:

    Academic careers are then sorely beset by chance. When a young scientist or scholar comes to seek advice about habilitation the responsibility which one assumes in advising him in heavy indeed. If he is a Jew, one naturally tells him: lasciate ogni speranza [Canto III, line 9 of Dante’s Inferno, sometimes translated as “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”]. But the others, too, must be asked with the utmost seriousness: “Do you think that, year after year, you will be able to stand to see one mediocrity after another promoted over you, and still not become embittered and dejected?” Of course, the answer is always: “Naturally, I live only for my calling.” But only in a very few cases have I found them able to undergo it without suffering spiritual damage. These things have to be said about the external conditions of the academic career.
    —Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation”, translated by Edward Shils

    According to Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson frequently complained about the personalized nature of academic politics, asserting that the “intensity” of academic squabbles was a function of the “triviality” of the issue at hand. Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt was quoted to a similar effect: “Academic politics is much more vicious than real politics. We think it’s because the stakes are so small.” In his 1979 book Peter’s People and Their Marvelous Ideas, Laurence J. Peter stated “Peter’s Theory of Entrepreneurial Aggressiveness in Higher Education” as: “Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small.”

    Another proverbial form is: “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” This observation is routinely attributed to former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger. Justin Kaplan, editor of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, asked Henry Kissinger whether he had stated, “The reason academic politics are so bitter is that so little is at stake.” According to him, Kissinger, “foxy as ever, said he didn’t recall saying it but that it ‘sounded’ like him. In other words, he didn’t say it but wouldn’t mind if we thought he did.” In fact, in a 1997 speech at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, Kissinger said: “I’m going to say one thing about academic politics to which Mr. [Peter W.] Schramm referred. I formulated the rule that the intensity of academic politics and the bitterness of it is in inverse proportion to the importance of the subject their [sic.] discussing. And I promise you at Harvard, they are passionately intense and the subjects are extremely unimportant.”

    Variations on the same thought have also been attributed to scientist-author C.P. Snow, professor-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and politician Jesse Unruh.”

    ******************* ******* ******** ********** ********* ***************
    Although this should not discourage anyone from seeking an academic career, one should be prepared to face the reality of academic politics. There are many seekers and only few positions and resources available, and talent does not rise naturally to the top.

  10. I’m married to a successful academic in the US. It is true that academic politics are the worst you can find: just like this man said in his letter.

    I have a friend teaching in China. I think the politics are even worse there due to all the reasons we can think of if we know much about China. This is a sad story.

    1. I want to add for those who don’t understand this aspect: when someone becomes an academic – devotes their life to doing well at something, learning it well – you expect that this ideal will at least be respected when it comes to the system of the schools. You expect that your qualifications and achievement will be regarded positively.

      If you get to the school and find that you need to be someone’s son-in-law or connection, that your work doesn’t matter, that people with far less qualification are put in all positions of responsibility, then not only do you get nowhere but the whole system is corrupt. This corruption varies from country to country, but the politics in academia are vicious and cruel. Highly intelligent people use their intelligence to do the most negative things to get a position or recognition and to demote others.

  11. Prof title is not easy to earn/recognize by your long time research, hard work, no. of published papers in China, it’s the d**n politics. Whatever you do must involves politics, that’s why those profs promotes green dam, internet blocking, GFW etc, they gets the title, and gets the government protection becoming rich asshole.

  12. He should have talked more with his sister and his wife…
    Talking and sharing your fears, anxieties and negative beliefs with your close friends help alot.. Personal experience!!

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