JIMMY ZHONG IS a Beijinger who speaks English with an American accent and wears a baseball cap. Sitting in his tatty office in the Chinese capital, he recalls the heady days of life in Manhattan after finishing his degree in maths and computer science at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. By then he was already rich, having sold his first company—an online marketplace enabling students to sell class notes—for $40m. He was in New York to help build another internet startup which he had co-founded during his third year at university—a forum for students to buy tutorial help. The money was rolling in.

“I lived on the 54th floor, with a balcony. It was great,” says the boyish, fast-talking 24-year-old. Silicon Valley, to which he had made a weekly trip while at college to pursue his sideline as a tech entrepreneur, had seemed boring by comparison. “Once you make some money in Manhattan, it’s heaven,” he says.

In early 2017, missing home, he went to spend the lunar-new-year holiday in Beijing. He had heard about the opportunities there, about startup companies such as the bike-sharing firms Ofo and Mobike that had grown into billion-dollar businesses in just a couple of years. But when he started talking to people, “I realised, what am I doing in New York City? It’s a complete waste of time.”

And so began his new ventures. One is a Beijing-based startup, Dora, that deals in self-service kiosks such as photo booths. Mr Zhong says it already has 300 employees and is worth $100m. He is now focusing on another one, IOST, based in Singapore, which is developing software involving blockchain, the cryptographic technology behind bitcoin. Most of Mr Zhong’s partners are Chinese educated at American universities.

The Chinese government is not a fan of bitcoin: it worries that such crypto-currencies could undermine the country’s financial stability. Last year it shut down exchanges in China where they were traded. But the country recognises the huge market potential for the underlying technology as an enabler of secure transactions. As in other digital domains, such as artificial intelligence, China is sparing no effort to establish itself as a world leader, so the government badly wants more people like Mr Zhong to return.

They are doing so in droves, many of them drawn back to China by a boom in tech-related business. In 2016 more than 430,000 people went back to China after finishing their studies, nearly 60% more than in 2011. In the same period, the numbers leaving rose by less than 40%. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, called this one of the biggest return flows of talent in any country’s history: the “magnetic effect” of China’s rise as a global power. About one-sixth of “sea turtles”, as returnees are jokingly known in Chinese (the words sound the same), take up IT-related work, according to a survey published last year by the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG), a think-tank in Beijing, and Zhaopin, a job-search website. Most of the 150 or so Chinese companies listed on NASDAQ were launched by returnees.

Officials have also offered them sweeteners: generous allowances to move back to China, as well as housing, health care and other benefits. “Today’s world not only has the West’s American dream but the East’s Chinese dream as well,” wrote Li Yuanchao, a now-retired party leader, in an article in 2012. Months later Xi Jinping became the Communist Party’s chief and made “Chinese dream” his slogan. Chinese abroad, living the Western sort, were to be part of it.

Officials say about 80% of Chinese students now return after finishing their studies, compared with less than one-third in 2006, but the figures are hard to verify. Some may go back to China for a short period and then leave again. Some, known as “seagulls”, flit back and forth between East and West. But the trend is clear.

The success of China’s plan to create world leaders in cutting-edge industries, known as “Made in China 2025”, will depend on returnees. And indeed they make up nearly half of the “core talents” involved in developing artificial intelligence in China, according to ChinaHR.com, a recruitment website. Growing numbers of them have not only been educated in America but have also gained crucial experience there.

Some Chinese companies are offering big remuneration packages to lure tech talent from America. The financial sector and its regulatory bodies are stacked with returnees. Most venture capitalists in China have studied in the West. Zhou Xiaochuan, who stepped down as China’s central-bank governor in March, studied in America in the late 1980s. His successor, Yi Gang, has a PhD from the University of Illinois and was a professor at Indiana University.

Slow march through the institutions

Less than 4% of those who return after studying abroad enter the civil service, according to the survey by CCG and Zhaopin. But returnees are a growing presence even at the highest levels of the government and the party. Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution reckons that at least one-fifth of the 370-odd members of the party’s current Central Committee, appointed last October, have spent at least a year on a foreign campus, mostly in the West. That is twice as many as ten years earlier, he calculates.

Also last October, for the first time in the history of the party’s rule, its most powerful body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, gained a member who had spent time at a Western university: Wang Huning, a former academic who has been playing a central role in crafting the party’s ideology. In the 1980s Mr Wang was a visiting scholar at the universities of Berkeley, Michigan and Iowa. Of the 25 members of the Politburo, three others are also returnees and hold important portfolios: Chen Xi, the chief of personnel; Yang Jiechi, President Xi’s chief adviser on foreign affairs; and Liu He, Mr Xi’s chief economic adviser.

In the coming years, as the recent wave of returnees moves up through the ranks, the numbers at the very top may well continue to grow. And members of the party elite who have not spent time on Western campuses will be increasingly likely to have been educated by people who have. The Communist Party’s main training centre for senior officials itself is recruiting returnees. All this is hard to square with China’s ever greater disdain for the West, its leadership’s growing hostility to Western values and its public’s tendency to respond to perceived slights by Westerners with chest-thumping nationalism. But looking further ahead, it is possible to take a more sanguine view.