Filling the Void: A Proposal to Decelerate China’s Talent Exodus

The China Focus Essay Contest is an annual event organized by China Focus since 2016, in partnership with the 21st Century China Center1990 Institute, and Fudan-UC Center on Contemporary China. The contest is open to all college and graduate students (including recent grads) of U.S. or Chinese universities. The next call for submissions begins in late fall and prompts will be announced on our essay contest webpage.

Below is the runner-up entry by Syed Bahadur Abbas and Wendao Liu.

Americans do not understand what brain drain is, they have no idea what it’s like to train your best and not see them come back, they have never experienced it, in fact they have only benefited from it. So, they can have no understanding or sympathy towards developing countries trying to overcome this problem…

David Zweig

With increasing mobility and cross-border communication technologies, there has not been a time in history when migration was as easy and fruitful as it is right now. The exponential development in innovation and social scholarship goes hand in hand with ease of global talent flow. Without digging too deep in history, we find abundant examples where countries have benefited from the ideas and expertise that were rendered in the minds of immigrant talents. 

Although the West, particularly the United States, is the leader in acquiring top talents from around the world, China has shown efforts to catch up. Ever since China adopted the opening-up policy, several amendments have been made in the national immigration policy that highlight China’s interest in acquiring top talents from around the world. 

President Xi frequently stresses the importance of international talent for maintaining growth. China’s sluggish integration of immigrants has been in place since 1985 when the first foreigner, a German national Werner Gerich, was granted permanent residency. Despite the opening up policy, the aggregate number of foreign permanent residents in China could not even reach 100 until the year of 2004. The conditions to attain a Chinese green card were so complicated that the number of Chinese green card holders reached only a mere 10,000 in 12 years. 

In 2016, the State Council released three documents on policies to attract international talents. One of these policy documents focused on the Entry-Exit policies to support innovation and development, while the other two documents detailed the policies about administering permanent residence and reforms for foreigner talent development mechanisms. It can be argued here that the more recent changes and openness of China’s contemporary immigration policy are motivated by two rising menaces: China’s aging population and brain drain.  

Aging Population and Brain Drain

As of 2017, individuals exceeding the age of 60 made up 17.3% of China’s total population, and the number of citizens older than 65 is expected to account for no less than 35% of the total population by the year of 2050. An aging population growing at an increasing rate and a decline in China’s birth rate contribute to a severe labor scarcity in the future. Other related problems include the increasing cost of healthcare and social security. Attracting international immigrants to fill the shoes of a shrinking workforce seems to be an obvious solution to fuel sustainable economic development. 

The second aforementioned problem directly relates to our topic of discussion. As the number of Chinese students at international universities increases, so does the intensity of China’s brain drain problem. Data shows that Chinese students who study abroad stay abroad to pursue careers. China’s talented youth becoming skilled professionals, but serving another country, complicates China’s goal to use human capital in innovation as a primary way of increasing total factor productivity. Hence, the Chinese leadership proposed policies and lucrative opportunities for overseas Chinese students to ensure their return. One of the most prominent policy interventions was the Thousand Talents Program, which targeted both internationals and Chinese talents abroad.

The Thousand Talents Program: Catching Sea Turtles

Sea turtle (海归) is a Chinese slang term usually used to refer to overseas Chinese nationals who return back home with rich expertise acquired from foreign lands. The introduction of the Thousand Talents Program (千人计划) in 2008 was China’s attempt to collect top-tier researchers and scientists from around the world. A special emphasis of this program was to target overseas Chinese high-end talents and bring them back to China. The Thousand Talents Program can also be viewed as the most prestigious academic award in China. The program offered a package jeweled with lucrative job offers and financial grants such as a one-time bonus of up to one million RMB. Although the program was open to all nationalities, its execution seemed focused on initiating a “Reverse Migration” process and convincing qualified Chinese nationals to return home

Within a decade of its initiation, the program was successful in acquiring more than 7,000 top talents from around the world. But as these figures grew, so did the concerns of China’s competitors. It did not take long for the program to become politically controversial on the international stage. The United States was the first one to raise concerns about the Thousand Talents Program, followed by Canada and Australia. It was considered China’s attempt at espionage and intellectual property theft. These severe allegations were supported by some program members’ disclosure. Either due to the accusations about the program’s credibility or the lack of close administration, the program was taken off the radar and rebranded as the “National High-end Foreign Expert Recruitment Plan.” 

The backlash against the Thousand Talents Plan is an example of the antagonism that developing countries often face when attempting to reverse brain drain. Such programs may provide China with the short-term procurement of foreign talents, but in order to sustain this flow, China needs to focus on policies that allow present and future international students to polish their abilities and become valuable assets to China. 

Could International Students prove to be China’s Diamond in the Rough?

International students are a critical source of talent flow to any country. Countries like the United States recognize the future value of international students studying at their universities. Hence, they designed a system that not only attracts top students from around the world to study in their universities, but also allows them to stay and seek employment after graduation. This is a stark difference from Chinese immigration policy for graduating students, which does not allow foreign students to overstay after graduation to seek employment. It is because of relatively looser policies for retaining foreign talent like the U.S.’s, that developing countries like China bear the consequences of talent exodus, as China has a large number of students enrolled in foreign universities. 

According to the data released by China’s Ministry of Education, from 1978 to 2018, the total number of Chinese students studying abroad reached an astounding 5.68 million, of which 4.32 million completed their studies and 3.65 million had returned to China. This means that more than 700,000 students chose to stay abroad even after graduation. Those who stay abroad are often high-level researchers and talented young professionals. The proportion becomes more significant when it comes to PhD students. According to a survey of 6,305 Chinese students who were scheduled to receive their doctorate degrees from U.S. universities in 2019, only 20 percent intended to return to China right away. 

Many of the high-skilled foreign talents in countries around the world start their journey as international students seeking better opportunities for higher education overseas. Any change in a country’s immigration policy would directly affect the influx of international students. This trend can also be traced among all of the top destinations for international students around the world. For instance, the declining rate of international students in the United Kingdom is directly related to the UK’s somewhat notorious points-based student visa policy. 

Being the third largest destination for international students, China possesses a huge potential to seek out high-end talents among the readily available cohort of international students. However, the number of students who stay for post-graduate employment opportunities in China is relatively lower than those of the other countries on the list. According to the 2016 Annual Report of Immigration in China, only 1,576 permanent resident permits were issued to foreign professionals, while more than 400,000 new international students arrived in China that same year.

Altering Policies to Retain China’s International Students

There are several reasons behind this large gap between the number of international students and Chinese green card holders. The most prominent one is definitely the language barrier. China is the only country among the top 5 destinations for international students where the native language is not English. Although the Chinese higher education system is compatible with English, when it comes to seeking employment after graduation, the language barrier becomes more conspicuous. Many international students, despite having an immense willingness to stay in China after graduation, fail to remain in the country solely because of their lack of proficiency in Chinese language. 

Another major hurdle for international students seeking employment in China is the strict part-time work regulations. According to the “Regulations on the administration of colleges and universities accepting foreign students” issued in January 2000 by the Ministry of Education, foreign students are not allowed to work full-time or part-time, or to engage in any kind of business activities while in school. Students must leave the country within the prescribed time after graduation, completion, dropout or withdrawal. Internships and apprenticeships are also highly conditioned under these regulations. This does not only put a financial burden on students, but also results in the lack of interaction and experience with the professional dynamics of their fields. This leads to a large number of international students graduating with minimal experience in China’s professional environment. Many of the international students are also unaware of legal formalities on how to prolong their visas and where to begin with their job search. 

Although there has been some relaxation in these policies, international students from certain cities in China can participate in internships conditioned by the agreement of the school so the qualified international students can step directly into professional life with some work experience. Still, it is largely due to a lack of exposure to career opportunities and the language barrier that many international students find it troublesome to pursue life in China after graduation.

When faced with the problem of language proficiency, many English-speaking countries made it a mandatory requirement for incoming students to attain a certain level of proficiency in English to begin their education. China can adopt the same policy for the international students and make it a mandatory requirement for them to attain proficiency in Chinese before starting their education, and then improve over time so that by graduation, every student has a sufficient grasp of the language to acclimate to Chinese society. The second problem can also be addressed through a simple policy initiative. The main culprit in this regard is the complexity of accessing information. This issue can be resolved through providing students with easier access to job-seeking forums and building programs that assist foreign students in seeking employment, while offering insights on China’s working environment. 

The central government encourages talented international students to stay and develop their careers in China. Of late, both of these proposed solutions have been implemented in select fields and Chinese cities, but the execution needs further improvement. The need for international students to possess professional working experience has been recognized by Chinese policymakers; some changes have been made to ease internship and part-time work regulations for international students in Beijing and Shanghai since 2018. Such policy initiatives result in a larger influx of international students, which can contribute to China’s skilled labor population. Similar to the expectations facing Chinese international students who are hoping to find employment in the U.S., basic working experience through internships and professional language proficiency are also essential for foreign students seeking employment in China. Students equipped with only a degree from a Chinese university and no relevant tools of skills likely will find it nearly impossible to rise among the ranks and start a career in China. 

The views expressed herein are those of the individual authors, and they do not represent the official positions of organizing and sponsoring institutions, including China Focus, 21st Century China Center, Fudan-UC Center on Contemporary China, and the 1990 Institute.

Image source: Mayura Jain

Click here to read this year’s winning essays


Syed is pursuing a Doctoral Degree in Public Administration at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He also holds a Master’s in Economics and a Master’s in Political Sciences with a specialization in China’s Politics and Economy. His research interests include political economy, China’s public policy and China in world politics.

Wendao Liu is a doctoral student in the School of International and Public Affairs at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, with a specialization in Urban and Rural Land reform. He graduated from Shanghai Jiao Tong University with a Master’s in Public Administration. His research focuses on China’s urban and rural land policy reform and Chinese politics.

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