Can China reverse the brain drain?

In the past decade, China appears to have been taking a strong position in the global brain race. Following the well-known 'Thousand Talents Program' - that grew to include the 'Thousand Young Talents Program' and the 'Thousand Foreign Talents Program' - which aims to lure expatriate and international talent, the Chinese government recently launched a 'Ten Thousand Talents Program'.

This programme, unlike the former, focuses on home talent and pledges to select and support 10,000 leading scholars in the next 10 years in the fields of science, engineering and the social sciences - among whom the top 100 will be compelled to aim to seize Nobel prizes.

So, China has explicitly raised its ambitions up to the standard of an innovation leader and is relying more and more on domestic talent.

Indeed, the 'Thousand Talents Program' did not really meet its expectations. So far, high calibre expatriate talent has not gone back to China in large numbers. Among the returnees, those possessing doctoral, masters and bachelor degrees have done so in a ratio of 1:8:1.

The majority of returnees are those who have spent a short while overseas studying for a masters degree. Statistics show that over 1.5 million Chinese scholars and students remain abroad.

Why not the expected outcomes?

What caused China's global brain strategy - famous for handsome salaries, generous start-up packages and other financial incentives - not to produce the expected outcomes?

One reason that Chinese scholars or students might return might be because they feel that only their human capital - their technical and tangible knowledge gained from various education and training programmes - is valued outside China. They may see few opportunities to fulfil their cultural and social capital.

Do initiatives like the 'Thousand Talents Program' provide the equivalent pull factor? Not necessarily, as such programmes are also primarily based on the logic of human capital.

Many Chinese expatriates may think there are better chances to enjoy their cultural capital - the implicit knowledge gained from their cultural traditions and environment - back in China. However, when it comes to building social capital, they will find they face 'ceilings' in China, too.

Ideas of social capital in China tend, however, to be closely linked to the concept of guanxi - personalised networks of influence - in particular connections with powerful bureaucrats.

Most returnees do not enjoy any social capital in this sense. In fact, they are more likely to be at a disadvantage, given they have been living outside China, in some cases for a couple of decades.

This is particularly true in recent years when the Chinese model of development has had considerable economic success. China has quickly become the world's second largest economy and the country has grown in confidence - China is anticipated to surpass the United States and become the wealthiest nation around 2020.

Against this backdrop, those policies and practices that bear Chinese characteristics are unlikely to be allowed to be influenced by ideas and people coming from the outside.


Two prominent returnee scientists were Rao Yi and Shi Yigong.

Rao Yi was a professor of neurology at Northwestern University in the United States. He returned to Peking University in 2007 to take up the position of dean of the college of life sciences.

Shi Yigong was the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis professor at Princeton University. In 2008, he resigned the position at Princeton and returned to Tsinghua University as the dean of life sciences there.

They are both regarded as top-flight talent lured back by the 'Thousand Talents Program'.

Apparently, both Rao Yi and Shi Yigong did not intend to go back to China as pure researchers. Rather, they wanted to make a difference and to improve China's research culture and university education and felt they could use their social capital to do so.

This is evident in their responses to questions as to why they chose to go back to China, as well as in their own writings. In a co-authored article published in 2010 in Science, Shi and Rao openly claimed that China's current research culture "wastes resources, corrupts the spirit, and stymies innovation".

Specifically, they cited the bureaucratic approach to research funding as one area that "stifles innovation and makes clear to everyone that connections with bureaucrats and a few powerful scientists are paramount".

They went on to disclose that: "[T]o obtain major grants in China, it is an open secret that doing good research is not as important as schmoozing with powerful bureaucrats and their favourite experts."

They became frustrated that such a problematic research culture "even permeates the minds of those who are new returnees from abroad; they quickly adapt to the local environment and perpetuate the unhealthy culture", and called for meaningful reform in order to build a healthy research culture.

While Shi and Rao were disturbed to see that many colleagues chose to be silent in the face of such an "unhealthy culture" for fear of fighting "a losing battle", they seem to have become victims of their own proclaimed war against a perceived unhealthy academic culture.

After two unsuccessful attempts in a row, Rao announced plans not to compete for a fellowship at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, while Shi is still waiting for the result of his second bid**.

If prominent returnees like Rao and Shi find that their social capital makes them vulnerable in the face of a corrupt research culture, how will domestic talent selected by the 'Ten Thousand Talents Program' fare?

In the cases of Rao and Shi, their cultural capital appears to have been used for PR purposes by the government. Despite their fight against bureaucracy, they are now often cited as examples of the success of the 'Thousand Talents Program'.

In the cases of many others, their social capital has been mostly assimilated into the current research culture in China.

In short, without overhauling the current research system and culture in China, it is not an easy task for initiatives such as the 'Thousand Talents Program' or 'Ten Thousand Talents Program' to accomplish their goals.

Last but not least, a message could also be sent to Western higher education systems that have been absorbing the bulk of global talent.

If sufficient attention is not paid to the cultural and social capital of global talent, then there could be a looming crisis that will shake their ability to attract and keep global talent.

** Note: On 19 December 2013, Shi Yigong was appointed a new member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, following his elections to both the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April 2013, as a foreign associate or foreign honorary member.

* Qiang Zha is an associate professor in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto, Canada. Email: This is an edited version of an article which was first published in International Higher Education, Spring 2014 Edition, Number 75.