Forget Uncle Sam

China wants its scientists to come home

Forget Uncle Sam

Sea Turtles required

Publish a book with a patriotic angle, and then wait for the press to bite.

As a promotional tactic, it seems to work well enough for mainland authors and Wang Huiyao’s Talent War seems to have ticked all the right boxes. His study of how China can best nurture its own “talents” for national glory is starting to get mentions in the media.

But Talent War also fits into a backdrop in which China continues to lose some of its best minds to other countries, especially so in the sciences.

Of course, the country’s long history of scientific achievement is now better known overseas. Paper, the compass, the printing press, gunpowder and much more were all conceived in moments of Chinese inspiration.

But policymakers today are more bothered about the future, and not surprisingly so when government studies identify that for every Chinese PhD holder working at home, three more have elected to emigrate to the United States.

Top universities have been hardest hit, Wang says. Since 1985, 80% of high tech graduates from Qinghua and 70% from Beijing University have opted to study with Uncle Sam.

For Wang, there are lessons to be learned from recent history; that European talent ensured American success in creating the atomic bomb, or that Chinese and Indian skill sets helped to build Silicon Valley.

One response, says the Guangzhou Daily, is to block the brain drain at source – by encouraging research students to complete their studies in the country. Wang thinks this will require at least 5% of national GDP to be invested in education, as well as annual research grants of up to $60,000 per graduate student. Supporters say this is small change compared to the costs of missing out on so much human capital.

A second approach is to focus on bringing back those who have departed. So the press is also exercised with how best to boost the numbers of hai gui (literally translated: sea turtles). These are overseas Chinese who have returned home.

No one seems quite sure how many graduates have remained overseas, although a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences study estimates that, of the 1.5 million students that have made the journey since 1978, two-thirds have chosen not to return. At least 300,000 are thought to be working in high value-added industries.

So the government has also been trying to appeal to national pride, by offering the opportunity to serve one’s country.

Its Thousand Person Plan targets the return of leading scientists and professionals, with applicants needing to be under 55 and holders of a PhD from a foreign university. An earlier success is Yi Gang, formerly a professor at the University of Indiana and now deputy governor at the central bank.

But patriotism is often trumped by pay and many potential returnees are put off by the likely cut in earnings. Even the government’s plan acknowledges this, and is said to offer annual tax-free bonuses of $147,000.

A growing economy helps, as well as the potential to forge new paths in higher-tech sectors. Suntech Power (a leading global solar panel manufacturer) as well as Baidu, Sohu and Ctrip (online and e-commerce businesses) all have hai gui origins, and many think that China’s economic vitality will encourage more exiles to return in future. The Guangzhou Daily still isn’t convinced, noting that the proportion of students returning in recent years has actually declined, despite economic growth at home.

It seems too that success is no guarantee for the sea turtles; Chinese lexicon now includes the hai dai (or “sea weed”) graduates who have returned to China but have failed to find meaningful employment.

What’s more, commercial rivalries are said to be brewing with an increasing number of tubie (literally, mud tortoises) businessmen who have been educated solely at home, and who are catching up on some of the advantages initially enjoyed by the returnees.

Perhaps the sea turtles should not wait too long before embarking on their return journey.

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