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China's brain drain may be world's worst

Updated: 2013-07-29 08:40
By He Dan and Yang Yao ( China Daily)

But more and more specialists are returning for home advantages

Sun Zhipei has only been in Helsinki for four months, but he has already decided it is where he wants to settle.

The 35-year-old nanotech scientist previously spent almost 10 years living in Spain and Britain, and said he would not entertain the idea of returning to his native China.

"I can have more control about what I want to study here and carry out projects I'm interested in," said the associate professor at Aalto University, who gained his PhD at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physics.

Sun's attitude perhaps goes some way toward explaining a People's Daily report in June that said China is experiencing "the world's worst brain drain".

Eighty-seven percent of the mainland's top specialists in science and engineering who went abroad for work or study have no plans to return, the paper quoted an unnamed official with the Party's coordination group on specialists as saying.

The group consists of 20 Party and government agencies, including the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee, which oversees human resources.

China Daily interview requests with the organization department went unanswered.

Although independent experts and statistics do not confirm the severity of the brain drain, there is little doubt it exists.

Wang Huiyao, director-general of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank, said since the reform and opening-up policy of the late 1970s, 2.6 million Chinese students have studied overseas, of which about half went to the United States.

The US is also the No 1 destination for many Chinese students, he said, with more than 190,000 on campuses last year.

Meanwhile, US Department of Homeland Security data show about 32,000 people from the Chinese mainland became naturalized US citizens last year, while 82,000 received green cards.

Cao Cong has published several essays and books about brain drain issues, and is an associate professor of social sciences at the University of Nottingham in Britain.

He estimates that 90 percent of Chinese students who get a PhD in the US choose to settle down there.

But why are the mainland's top scientists and engineers so reluctant to return home?

"Chinese institutions have new research equipment, much of it better than at places in the US," said Joseph Jen, former undersecretary for research, education and economics for the US Department of Agriculture.

"I would say the most important reason good Chinese scientists choose to stay in the US is because of the scientific culture ... (in which) scientists have bigger freedoms to pursue research of their choice.

"In the US, graduate students are trained to be independent and innovative," said the 74-year-old, who was born in Chongqing but later settled in the US, earning a PhD in biochemistry at the University of California.

"In China, barring some exceptions, students are instrument operators, without opportunities to develop independent thinking and new creations."

Jen said he also believes that getting the best jobs in China still requires guanxi, or good connections, which is not the case in the US.

However, he conceded that although the US has material advantages, "racial discrimination still exists, and many Chinese-Americans are bothered by that."

Chen Zhengyu, an MBA student at Cambridge University's Judge Business School, said most of his Chinese friends who are professionals or scientists stay abroad for their children's education.

"It is a significant factor for Chinese parents to settle in Europe," he said, adding that many people want an alternative to a model focused on exam scores.

Major projects

Under the Medium- and Long-Term Talent Development Plan (2010-20), China plans to lure back 2,000 top Chinese specialists, ideally in the fields of IT, biotechnology, aerospace, environmental protection, agricultural technology and transportation.

Since the 1990s, the government has launched at least seven major projects.

From 1990 to 2010, the Ministry of Education invested 600 million yuan ($98 million) to provide seed funding for more than 20,000 returnees to do scientific research.

The CAS also launched a plan in 1994 to lure overseas Chinese scientists by offering 2 million yuan for research, which has so far lured back 1,568 top scientists.

Pan Shilie decided to return in 2007 after attending a job fair in Chicago organized by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. At the time he was three years into a postdoctoral research program at Northwestern University in the US.

"Every year, deans of research institutes affiliated to the CAS go to the US and Europe to hunt for overseas Chinese candidates," said the 40-year-old, who hails from Henan province. "After talking with employers, I realized the research platform in China is also good. But what was more important is I felt the sense of belonging. My heart never settled abroad."

Pan has been working for the CAS' Xinjiang Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry for the past six years. After being recruited via the Hundred Talent Program, he received 2 million yuan, which included funding and a 270,000 yuan relocation allowance.

Although the incomes and benefits for domestic scientists still lag behind Western countries, he said the gap is narrowing. "China has been increasing investment in research and development, while the economic downturn in the US and Europe means my friends overseas face pressure to cut funding," he said.

In a speech in Beijing in June, Zhan Wenlong, vice-president of the CAS, said more native scientists and researchers are returning.

"Respect, care, trust and helping them to fulfill their development potential are the missions for our academy," he said.

"We work toward the goal of building an ecosystem for innovation by managing the forest that allows trees to grow in rich soil and abundant sunshine."

Zhan said his academy will also guarantee four-fifths of a researcher's time will be spent in research.

Last year, the CAS launched a 3H Project that gives favorable policies to solve researchers' concerns on housing, health insurance, and home life, such as their children's education and employment for their spouses.

However, the overall technology level in China is still lower than in the US, West European countries and Japan, said Gui Zhaoming, a professor at Wuhan Institute of Technology.

"For overseas specialists who have the aspiration to be an entrepreneur in China, lack of funding is the biggest obstacle," he said.

Favorable financial policies have been launched to help specialists come back.

Returnees can enjoy a 15 percent preferential tax policy if they start a high-tech enterprise. However, China's private equity and venture capital system hinders entrepreneurship, as regulations are underdeveloped and the nation's credit system is not fully developed, he said.

"If they can't get investment, they can never translate their ideas into a business," Gui said. "That is why they hesitate to come back."

And working in an environment that brings together different nationalities is also attractive to some specialists.

Fan Feifei, Cheng Yingqi and Zhao Xinying contributed to this story.

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