By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - As Western countries worry over China's rise on the international
stage, they hold a key advantage in the competition for power and influence:
many of China's best and brightest go abroad for a university education, enjoy
their lives in the West, and never return home to share their knowledge and
expertise with the motherland.
A recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the nation's
top think-tank, shows that China is losing more first-rate minds to the West
than any other country in the world. The phenomenon amounts to a new form of
colonialism in which Western countries exploit intellectual talent rather than
China is not the only victim of this international form of brain-picking, but
it tops the list. More than 70% of the Chinese students who go abroad to study
don't return home, according to the study. Of the 1.06 million Chinese who have
traveled overseas to study since 1978, CASS found that only 275,000 have
And despite torrid economic growth of nearly 10% for the past three decades,
the problem does not seem to be getting any better. In 2005, 118,500 students
left China for study abroad. By 2010, 200,000 are expected to enroll in foreign
All told, according to CASS, the Chinese diaspora holds 35 million people
scattered in more than 150 countries, making China the world's largest source
Yang Xiaojing, one of the authors of the study, was pleased by the
international competitiveness of Chinese students but worried about the
country's future if the brain drain continues.
"This shows that Chinese students overseas, especially those with
extraordinary abilities, are a real hit in the global tug-of-war for
talent," he told the state-run China Daily. "While strictly
controlling the inflow of foreign labor to protect the interests of [their]
domestic workforce, most developed countries spare no effort to attract the
best talent from around the world."
Yang added this warning: "Against a backdrop of economic globalization, an
excessive brain drain will inevitably threaten the human-resources security and
eventually the national economic and social security of any country."
Previously, Beijing had embraced the concept of "brain circulation".
The aim was for students to study in the West and then bring back their
expertise to China for the advancement of the motherland. In addition,
emigration reduced competition in the job market, which is cutthroat for
university graduates in China, and brain drain seemed of no great consequence
in a country where last week 10 million students sat the annual university
entrance exam. Emigration also brings US$20 billion in annual remittances to
the country from Chinese living overseas, according to a 2006 United Nations
But with seven of every 10 students remaining abroad while China suffers from a
dearth of expertise in important sectors of the economy, the thinking in
Beijing has changed. Now the government is offering incentives for students and
professionals to return. Issued in March, these include exempting professionals
in undermanned fields - science, engineering, and corporate management stand
out - from the burdensome hukou (house registration) system, which can
limit where a person lives and works.
Low-interest loans and higher salaries are also being offered to returnees, as
well as coveted places for their children in the country's most prestigious
universities. The Ministry of Personnel has even called for "a talent
security alarm system" to monitor emigration.
Meanwhile, the diaspora continues to expand. What will it take to persuade
those who are potentially some of China's best and brightest stars to come
"Of the many reasons for the brain drain of Chinese students," the
CASS study said, "huge social and economic gaps in terms of personal
income, employment opportunities, working conditions, research facilities and
living standards are the main ones."
Put plainly, talented graduates can make a lot more money outside China, enjoy
a better work environment, avoid rampant corruption, and plan a family without
worrying about the one-child policy.
Emigrants must also be daunted by the unemployment rate for university
graduates in China. Since 2002, it has averaged 30%. Part of the problem is the
education system itself, which has been unable to keep up with the rapidly changing
needs of Chinese society. There is a shortage of qualified faculty and courses
in finance, management, information technology and other fields that are in
growing demand in the booming Chinese economy. At the same time, there are far
too many graduates in the humanities and social sciences who battle for jobs in
a glutted market.
The potential for social unrest among unemployed students rightly worries the
Chinese leadership. Those worries must have been heightened last week when a
riot ensued after a female student was beaten by city inspectors for illegally
selling fashion accessories on a street in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan
province. The rioters were mostly other students from different universities in
The Zhengzhou incident is a painful reminder that the Chinese educational
system is caught in a difficult catch-up game with the country's runaway
economy. It is no wonder that gifted students opt to go abroad and that, once
there, many choose not to return.
Despite the large numbers, however, the Chinese emigration problem pales when
compared in percentages with places in the developing world. World Bank figures
show that a quarter to half of university-educated professionals in the world's
poorest countries live abroad, and the figure is as high as 80% in Haiti and
The brain drain is particularly acute in Africa, a continent that will need its
educated professional class if it is to rise out of its post-colonial mire of
poverty and corruption. But how can a country like Ghana cope with the
challenge when 47% of its university-educated citizens live abroad? Things will
also be tough in Mozambique, which has lost 45% of its educated class, and in
Kenya (38%), Somalia and Angola (both 33%).
The list goes on. Indeed, there are more African scientists in the United
States than in all of the 54 countries of Africa.
It is hard to blame students for fleeing their impoverished homelands for
greener educational pastures when 90% of the world's funding for research and
development in higher education goes to the US, Britain, Australia, Germany and
Japan. Developing countries simply cannot compete in the global contest for
talent. In an age where, more than ever, knowledge equals power and wealth,
this amounts to a new form of colonialism holding poor countries back.
While in sheer numbers the world's most populous countries - China and India -
appear to suffer the most from brain drain, studies show they lose only about
5% of their graduates. For China, however, that has become too much as it
sorely needs the expertise of many of its citizens living abroad.
No doubt a Shanghai survey published this year in the Labor Daily has added to
official concern. The survey showed that 36.9% of the city's middle-school
students hope to become US citizens one day.
Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd.
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