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Reverse brain drain: China engineers incentives for “brain gain”

Chinese who found it hard to fit in at the water cooler abroad feel newly valued at home as China creates a reverse brain drain of financial incentives for native talent to return.

By Staff writer / October 21, 2012

Sophie Ye Tao, who made her fortune as a hedge fund manager in New York, says she has returned to China in order to understand her home country better before strking off in a new business direction. PHOTO: Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor PETER FORD

Peter Ford/Staff

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Beijing and Wuxi, China

Nowhere in the world has a government taken the task of tempting exiled talent to return home as seriously as in China.

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That goal has been enshrined as a major national policy; the authorities see it as a key shortcut to putting China at the cutting edge of technology and boosting the country to the next level of economic development.

"The leadership is very, very aggressive on this – very proactive," says David Zweig, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who is writing a book about Chinese returnees. "The Chinese government has been the most assertive government in the world in introducing policies targeted at triggering a reverse brain drain."

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Beijing has a lot to work with. China is the world's largest source of overseas students – 14 percent of the global total, according to the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing think tank that advises the government on talent recruitment. In the United States, 22 percent of foreign students come from China.

More than 1.5 million Chinese have left their homeland to study since Deng Xiaoping began encouraging them to do so in 1978; for many years, few of them returned. Now the tide is turning, according to Ministry of Education figures: Last year, 186,000 came back, nearly 40 percent more than in 2010.

Their reasons vary, but one stands out: China's economic boom makes the country a very attractive place to anyone seeking to build a future.

Steven Bai, for example, stayed on to work for two years after finishing his master's in information technology in Australia. "I had a small job in a small company," says Mr. Bai, sipping a latte in a Beijing Starbucks one recent Saturday morning. He returned home to China last November and signed on with Lenovo. "Now I have a good job in a big company," he says happily. "The career opportunities are much better here."

Luring 'sea turtles' home

"Returnees" are not a new phenomenon in China; Mao Zedong was the only member of the first Communist Party Central Political Committee to rule China in 1949 who had not studied or worked abroad. Those who come back even have a nickname, "sea turtles," a play on the Chinese words for "returnee."

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