‘Return of the native’ hype spotlights top talent rivalry

China’s official media and social media alike are abuzz with the news that renowned biologist Yan Ning (AKA Nieng Yan) has given up a professorship at Princeton University in the United States to establish a medical research institution in China. Some even hailed the move as a “new era” for China’s domestic scientific research.

Official media are ecstatic at Yan’s ‘patriotic’ decision, just as Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been calling on Chinese scientists overseas to return to help build the country’s self-sufficiency in science and technology.

The fear had been that the country’s decoupling from the United States in respect of technology would hurt science and technology collaboration with the West, just as China is forging ahead.

The English language official Shanghai Daily newspaper headlined its article on Yan “The return of the native”, while the often-strident official Global Times newspaper claimed the return was an indication that the innovation and research environment in the US is deteriorating – part of the Communist Party’s propaganda narrative about a general decline in the US.

Xi Jinping’s report to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last month noted: “More talent willingly choosing to return to China shows that China’s environment is attractive to talent in many ways. This is a mutual choice. The country, which supports innovation and provides opportunities for talent to realise their ideals, will be a good stage.”

Other moves from the US to China have been flagged by China’s official media. For example, Li Zhijin, a senior data scientist who worked for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) for more than 20 years, took up a job this year as distinguished professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, according to the university’s website.

The expert on marine data analysis had worked for a number of US government agencies before returning.

But none have captured the public imagination like Yan’s return.

A reverse brain drain

The hope is that Yan’s move could spark a wave of influential scientists and researchers returning to China in a reverse brain drain and bolster the government’s aspirations to be a science and technology superpower with research opportunities that match the West.

Asian American scientists in the US acknowledge that Yan’s move is one of the most significant returns of a prominent Chinese American scientist, in particular because she left Tsinghua University in Beijing for Princeton just five years ago. In 2007, at the age of 30, she became the youngest ever professor and PhD student supervisor at Tsinghua University’s School of Medicine.

Yan announced her return herself during a speech on 1 November at the Shenzhen Global Innovation Talent Forum. “Shenzhen is the city of dreams, and I want to realise my next dream here,” she said. The post was viewed over 400 million times by the next day on the Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo.

Yan will help set up the Shenzhen Medical Academy of Research and Translation, described by some as being modelled on the US National Institutes of Health, with a high level of administrative autonomy to select projects.

Decision to leave China

Back in 2017, she said on Weibo that her reason for leaving for the US was to conduct scientific research “under relatively better conditions”. Already considered a star researcher at the time, she was accused of turning her back on China, with netizens even accusing her of “treachery”.

Others said Yan’s move to the United States was just a common personal choice, part of the global free flow of talent.

After she won a major award of the American Organisation of Women Scientists in the US, she told US media that what was most attractive about her career in the US was “freedom” and “freedom of time”.

Pressure to churn out academic papers to the detriment of in-depth research, and other administrative pressures of the Chinese system have been the subject of recent academic research.

Some suggested her decision to work in the US might have been influenced by discrimination against women scientists in China. When she left Tsinghua for Princeton, where she had initially completed her PhD, many pointed out that before leaving China in 2017 Yan had tried three times, each time unsuccessfully, to become an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Yet in 2019, Yan became a foreign academician of the US National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honours for a scientist in the US, as well as winning multiple scientific awards.

China as an attraction for talent

But experts note that a lot has changed in China since Yan took up a tenured faculty position in the US in 2017.

“China has now become a major scientific superpower, leading in scientific publication and high impact articles and the amount of investment going to scientific research.

“For a long time, China was a source of talent. It is now becoming an attraction for talent, not just within China, but from other parts of the world,” said Jenny Lee, professor of education policy at the University of Arizona in the US where she has researched Asian American scientists and research collaboration between China and the US.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that it is now attracting people with its greater resources and investments,” Lee added.

In particular Lee noted the growing global competition for top science stars, with “considerable weight placed on particular individuals, whether they be a Nobel Laureate or highly cited researchers”, in global university rankings.

The ability of top universities to attract individual stars is often seen as proxy for their global reputation. And some institutions only need to attract a small number to enhance this reputation.

“Because we’re in a broader system that really values faculty stars, based on measures of [research] productivity, funding, awards and esteemed positions, they may be concentrated. They may be a very small proportion of the overall scientists in an institution,” Lee noted.

Suspicions over dual affiliation

The global competition for top brains has also meant a greater tendency to see top Chinese American scholars as either Chinese or American, whereas in the past many had dual affiliations with both US and Chinese institutions.

During the administration of former US president Donald Trump, dual affiliation began to be looked upon with some suspicion. Dual US-China affiliations have dropped, according to an analysis by Nature published in May.

The analysis found that the number of scholars declaring affiliations in both China and the United States on research papers declined by more than 20% over the past three years. This was seen as part of a “pattern of waning US-China collaboration that is starting to show up in research databases”, according to Nature, not just due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has restricted travel, but also political tensions between China and the US.

Many point to the effect of the US Justice Department’s controversial China Initiative – set up during the Trump presidency to investigate scientists’ links to China in an attempt to identify espionage, intellectual property theft and US technology transfer to China – of forcing Chinese American scientists to choose between the two countries.

Dual affiliation “was often seen as a marker of prestige – that this person is an international scholar”, said Lee. “Then the China Initiative and increasing scrutiny from the Department of Justice on conflicts of interest meant universities took a closer look at scientists that had these two affiliations, and they now view it as less of a marker of international prestige and as more of a marker of a conflict of interest.”

“And particularly, we have these countries that are red flags,” said Lee, referring to China, Iran and more recently Russia.

Chilling effect of the China Initiative

The environment for Chinese and Chinese American scientists in the US has undoubtedly been a push factor, which has made prominent scientists more willing to risk the more difficult and controlled, albeit well-funded, research environment in China.

Lee, together with researcher Xiaojie Li, documented the nefarious effect of the China Initiative on Chinese and Chinese American scientists in the US in a report published in October 2021 by the Committee of 100, an organisation of Chinese Americans in business, academia and government.

They found that racial profiling of Chinese scientists under the Justice Department’s initiative was spreading fear within the scientific community.

“We refer to this as a chilling effect, where individuals who would not ever be targeted or have not done anything that would be under scrutiny from the authorities are now feeling they need to be very cautious of every step. This is in addition to anti-Asian hatred that was happening and continues to happen in the United States from the Trump era,” Lee explained.

“Our report indicated Asian American and Asian scientists in the United States thought about leaving the United States and working elsewhere. And in comments, they described China as a very desirable location,” Lee said, noting that these scientists were either born in China or studied in China.

Other research has shown that things got so bad during the Trump years that many scientists made the decision to leave the US for China.

Exodus of China origin scientists

A study entitled “Caught in the Cross-Fire: Fears of Chinese American scientists”, released in late September by the Asian American Scholar Forum (AASF) in the US noted that the China Initiative “caused panic and an exodus of senior academic researchers of Chinese descent in the US”.

According to AASF research led by Yu Xie, professor of sociology at Princeton University’s Centre on Contemporary China, and Xihong Lin, professor of biostatistics at Harvard University, the number who dropped their American academic or corporate affiliation in 2021 in favour of a move back to a Chinese institution jumped by 23% over 2020.

The report said the scientists had been “lured to return to China by a combination of factors: large and fast-growing investments in science; high social prestige and attractive financial rewards tied to positions in Chinese institutions; and capable research collaborators and assistants”.

In 2021, 1,500 Chinese scholars who were educated in the United States left to go back to China, according to the report. The total, based on an analysis of author affiliations in academic journal papers, included both early-career scientists and tenured professors.

Since the China Initiative started in 2018, the number of academics moving to China increased by 40%, the report noted.

During a webinar organised by AASF on 28 October, Yu noted “a steady increase in the return migration of Chinese origin scientists from the US to China, based on institutional affiliations”, which he described as “a proxy for measuring the flow of migration from American science to Chinese science”.

“That trend has increased over time and picked up speed in more recent years. And we especially see an increase in engineering and computer science – that is the area of sensitive technology, an important area for the US,” he noted. “We were losing talent to China for a while, but particularly after the [Justice Department’s] China Initiative.”

In an accompanying survey of more than 1,300 Chinese-born US faculty members,
conducted between December and March 2022, the AASF report found that 61% of Chinese professors felt pressured to leave the US. Another 42% said they no longer felt safe working in the US as academic researchers.

A lingering chill

The China Initiative was ended by the administration of President Joe Biden in February, but Lee and others believe the effects are still being felt.

Lee said: “The Biden administration has drastically softened the language, but it is still taking a very hard stance against China, using the language of China as an adversary, and [suggesting] that we must continue to compete against this country.

“But they’re much more politically correct. And, in some ways, this helps to reassure the Chinese American community that they are not the target. Yet we still see the Department of Justice targeting Chinese nationals or those of Chinese affiliation, despite dropping the name of the China Initiative.

“Unfortunately, I just don’t see this going away. One would think, for example, when we have a global catastrophe like COVID that we would be coming together but, rather, there’s much more blame and finger pointing,” she said of current relations between China and the US.