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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.

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"I had no outstanding advantage competing [for a job] against locals in Australia," says Chris Zhang, who shared an apartment in Sydney with his friend Steven Bai before coming back to work in the finance department of a state-owned enterprise. "Here my foreign work experience is an advantage; sometimes your mind works a little differently from a traditional Chinese mind and you solve problems in a different way."

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Here, says Mr. Zhang, he feels valued; in Australia he found it hard to fit in. When his work mates chatted around the water cooler about rugby or cricket, for example, he "had no idea what they were talking about," he recalls, ruefully. Abroad, he felt underappreciated, underused; back home, he can make a contribution.

Indeed, returnees are playing leading roles at almost every level of Chinese society, except in politics: The ruling Communist Party seems mistrustful of cadres who have had too much foreign experience, and a paltry 6 percent of the 204 full members of the current Central Committee have had any overseas education.

Elsewhere, however, "brain gainers" can be found running the Chinese branches of many multinational corporations, at the helm of the country's groundbreaking technology firms, and helping shape public opinion as editors and commentators in the media or as pundits staffing increasingly influential think tanks.

Brain gain breaks down walls

"People familiar with two worlds have become front-runners in China," says Mr. Wang, "and as China globalizes more and more, people with knowledge of globalization will be front and center of China's development."

From that privileged position, they will change China, Wang predicts. A study he conducted earlier this year, for example, found only 46 percent of returning entrepreneurs shared the standard Chinese collectivist outlook that attaches more importance to the community than to the individual.

"We have so many structural problems," laments Tao. "There is no panacea or easy answer, but I feel that if more people like me came back we could collectively find answers and make changes."

Already, Tao says, she senses changes. As she sniffs out investment opportunities, she finds "more companies run by … returnees that are run in a more professional way, more transparently. They understand the importance of corporate governance."

Han, too, has noticed progress in the three years since he returned home. "My company totally follows the law and the rules," he insists – highly unusual in China, where corruption and rule-bending are the norm – "and I am getting more and more respect. People used to tell me that contracts were nonsense. Now my distributors respect contracts and I can use lawyers" if they don't.

Most important, perhaps, is the bridging role that people like Han and Tao will play as China struggles to find its place in the world. Since Lenovo bought IBM's personal computer unit in 2007, Bai points out, "our company has gone from being local to global.

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"Those of us with [an] overseas background can easily communicate with foreign people and colleagues, and think in their ways," he says. "We are breaking down the walls between China and the rest of the world."

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