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Sea Turtle, Ground Tortoise and Sea Tortoise

“Sea turtle,” or a professional who has returned from overseas, is now a familiar term. “Returned automotive experts are “sea turtles” and automotive circles have a consensus about their roles. The rise of the automobile industry in the Republic of Korea is said to be contributed by 2,000 “sea turtles” – the first group of returned specialists and engineers from North America who played an important role in the rise of the country’s automotive sector. This kind of thing does not happen as easily in China. First of all, potential “sea turtles” are not coming back in droves. Secondly, those who want to come back are scared by the high standard of living in Shanghai and Beijing. Thirdly, China’s automobile industry does not have 2,000 manager vacancies for them. And fourthly, China is still a developing country and unable to provide U.S.-level wages.

“Sea turtles” could hardly play as big a role in China in the past; nor can they now and in the near future.

“Ground tortoise” refers to a homegrown automotive specialist. The role and contributions of homegrown specialists are well known. They are pragmatic and down to earth and have assumed their management positions mostly through working together with multinational partners. In the beginning, doubts about “ground tortoises” at independent automakers might be a reason for the invitation of “sea turtles” to the team of management. But the current eddying tide of “sea turtles” may represent a re-emergence of “ground tortoises.” Yet old problems remain.

With regard to technical and R&D approach, “sea turtles” and “ground tortoises” have formed into two camps. Aside from corporate politics, which is not our concern here, the two camps have distinct differences in technology choices. “Sea turtles” tend to rely on external resources such as suppliers from Europe and North America, whereas “ground tortoises” tend to rely on local resources. Given the nature of supply chain logistics, “sea turtles” are at a slight disadvantage.

Against this background, however, people tend to neglect the rise of another force, the “sea tortoise,” a cross breed of “sea turtle” and “ground tortoise.” This is a new group of professionals, a force that may be the hope of China’s automobile industry.

The earliest “sea turtles” and “ground tortoises” may have already evolved into “sea tortoises.” Given the short history of China’s auto industry, the number of “sea tortoises” is still limited and they are unable to have a significant impact on the direction of the market. But, with the passage of time, “sea tortoises” are likely to grow into a leading force shaping the future of China’s automobile industry.

Farsighted corporate leaders and entrepreneurs should conscientiously cultivate “sea tortoises” by encouraging “sea turtles” to work closely with local suppliers and customers and by encouraging “ground tortoises” to get more involved in more international projects. For a prospective “sea tortoise,” he or she should also conscientiously plan his or her professional career along this line. This may run counter to the current practice in many corporations, relying exclusively either on “sea turtles” or “ground tortoises.” But treat this as reverse thinking. We Chinese have done a great job of reverse engineering. We need just a little bit of reverse thinking when it comes to valuation of returned or local engineering and professional talent.

The introduction of the term “sea tortoise” may offer some useful ideas.


(Rewritten by Raymond Chen based on the author’s blog on

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