China is encouraging overseas experts to repatriate, but can it offer a truly welcoming environment for research?
Last February, a disbelieving US media declared scientists C. N. Yang and Andrew Yao’s resumption of their Chinese citizenship—renouncing American nationality along the way—as a triumph of Beijing’s soft power. In China, the reception was more polarized; in between state media paeans to the pair’s patriotism, a decades-old rumor reappeared on the web—that Yang, then aged 94, was out to collect Chinese retirement benefits.
“Scientist gave his best years to the US, comes home to live the high life,” began one diatribe against the Nobel laureate, who’d left China to study in Chicago in 1945 and technically “returned” in 2003, when he became a full-time professor at Tsinghua University. Underlying the patriotic bluster, there was a cynicism born of insecurity. “[It’s because] he can no longer hack it in the US,” stated another netizen, perhaps not realizing what this implied for the quality of academic research on the mainland. (Ironically, Yang who won the 1957 Nobel Prize for work on particle physics, has repeatedly urged Chinese academia to have greater confidence in its abilities).
The idea of a “brain drain,” the departure of a country’s brightest and best-educated individuals for a better international market for their talent, is a familiar heartache for most developing nations. China, however, may be the most proactive nation in the world for trying to reverse this trend. At the heart of its strategies is the Thousand Talents Plan, an umbrella initiative begun in 2008 by the Communist Party’s General Office to encourage universities, research institutes, and state-owned enterprises to develop recruitment programs for “high-level” foreign talent to lead China’s high-tech industries. Offers from local governments and institutions included not only high salaries and research funding, but in some cases housing assistance and, in certain “high-tech hubs” such as Beijing’s Zhongguancun, expedited paths to permanent residency.
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Rovers Return is a story from our issue, “Fast Forward.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.