Can China Excel in Global Brain Race?

During the absence of many expatriate Chinese, China has emerged as the world’s second largest economy with the confidence that it may surpass the U.S. to become the wealthiest nation around 2020.

December 1, 2013

China appears to be gaining in the global brain race during the past decade. Following the well-known “Thousand Talent Program”, the Chinese government recently launched a “Ten Thousand Talent Program,” that, unlike the former, focuses on home-grown talent and pledges to support 10,000 leading scholars in sciences, engineering and social sciences during the next 10 years, pushing the top 100 to aim for Nobel prizes. There are notable two things here. First, China has begun to focus on leading innovation. Second, the focus has shifted towards cultivating domestic talent.

The “Thousand Talent Program” didn’t meet expectations. So far, high caliber expatriate talent has not returned to China on a large scale. Despite difficult economic conditions in most Western nations, more than 1.5 million Chinese scholars and students remain abroad; most returnees are those who were overseas just long enough to read for a master’s degree. Why did China’s global brain strategy (famous for handsome salaries, generous start-up packages, and other financial incentives) not achieve the expected outcomes? In this short piece, I offer my interpretation, drawing upon the notion of human, cultural and social capital.

Arguably, talent should embody a combination of human, cultural and social capital, and tirelessly seek to enhance each. This could provide an interesting angle on the direction of brain circulation. According to Bourdieu, human capital is more technical knowledge gained from education and training. Supposedly, Chinese expatriate talent feel they are treated merely as human capital by their host country and see few chances to enhance their cultural and social capital in that context. This could well serve as a push factor. But do the initiatives like the “Thousand Talent Program” provide the necessary pull factor? Not if this kind of program is also based on human capital logic. Expatriate Chinese talent may see better chances to enjoy cultural capital back in China, often defined as a higher status in society. However, when it comes to leveraging social capital, they will find a “ceiling” in China too.

Social capital in the Chinese context has been closely linked with the concept of guanxi (personalized networks of influence)—in particular, connections with powerful bureaucrats. In this regard, most returnees don’t have any advantage. Often they suffer a disadvantage, given their separation from China, that may have been for a couple of decades in some cases.

During the absence of many expatriate Chinese, China has emerged as the world’s second largest economy with the confidence that it may surpass the US to become the wealthiest nation around 2020. The policy and practice of the current government have made this possible and reflect Chinese characteristics unlikely to be influenced in the future by ideas and personnel coming home from abroad. Consider the story of two prominent returnee scientists as examples. Before returning, Rao Yi was a professor of neurology at Northwestern University in the US. 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 his position at Princeton University to continue his career at Tsinghua University as the Dean of Life Sciences. They represent the small number of top-flight academics lured back by the “Thousand Talent Program.”

Apparently, both Rao Yi and Shi Yigong didn’t intend to return as pure researchers. Rather, they wished to improve China’s research culture and university education, leveraging their social capital. This is evident in interviews about 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 asserted that China’s current research culture “wastes resources, corrupts the spirit, and stymies innovation.” Specifically, they cited the bureaucratic approach to allocating research funding as something that “makes clear to everyone that the 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 favorite experts.” They were frustrated by a research culture that “permeates the minds of new returnees from abroad who quickly adapt to the local environment and perpetuate the unhealthy culture.” They have called for a meaningful reform.

Shi and Rao were disturbed that other academics remained silent in face of such an “unhealthy culture” and who seemed to believe the pursuit of change is “a losing battle” At the same time they became victims of their war against the existing culture. After two unsuccessful attempts to obtain it, Rao called for a boycott of a fellowship awarded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Shi is waiting for the result of his second bid. If prominent scholars like Rao and Shi, with all of the social capital they earned abroad are penalized by a corrupt research culture, how could domestic talent expect to flourish?

Worse still, the cultural and social capital of returnees could result in unintended Entfremdung (estrangement). In the case of Rao and Shi, their experiences appear to have been converted into positive publicity for the government. Despite their fight against the bureaucracy, they are now often cited as part of the success of the “Thousand Talent Program.” In the cases of many others, their social capital is assimilated into the current research culture in China, and they become the so-called “elegant egoists.” In short, without overhauling the current research system and culture in China, it is not likely that initiatives such as the “Thousand Talent Program” or “Ten Thousand Talent Program” will accomplish their goals of encouraging innovation.

There is a message here for the Western systems that have been benefited from the bulk of global talent. If there is insufficient attention paid to insuring that the benefits of cultural and social capital are enjoyed by international scholars, then there is a crisis looming that may well undermine the potential of those systems to continue to draw talent into the future.



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Qiang Zha

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