Brain drain, brain gain

I’ve written before about the clogging of China’s brain drain – or to be more accurate with my metaphor, the increasing volumes of water which return to the basin after a few years in the plumbing. (If, that is, you accept the comparison of the best Western Universities with a sewer.) Leonidas’ plan – see the link – is in my eyes typical of the brightest young Chinese, increasingly determined to be ‘returning turtles’ – a cute Chinese phrase for overseas students who flap their way back home.

The other lunch, noodles in Tsinghua with Tony, I was reminded of this topic as we discussed his own applications to Oxford, Cambridge and LSE. Touch wood, Tony will be in the UK from next autumn (this is his final year at Beida), beginning an MPhil in International relations, with the proposed thesis topic Changes in European Perception of China (1793-1911) – A comparative study on Lord Macartney, Karl Marx and Sir Robert Hart (“I would examine the hypothesis that there is a causal relationship between the perceptual shift and the policy shift within Europe”).

Indeed, every bowl of noodles I slurp with Tony – me doing the slurping – he never fails to impress me with some arcane nugget of Western learning. (Always Western: I’ve yet to hear him cite an ancient Chinese thought, for all of his Robert Harts). On top of this, I’ve yet to catch him out as uninformed on current affairs or history; he is a networker if I’ve ever seen one; and he is always perfectly turned out. (While for me, the prospect of cramming a new word or two often trumps a morning shave). In short, if he gets in, England’s gain will most definitely be China’s loss. But, like Leonidas, Tony plans to come back to China after (again, fingers crossed) his PhD.

So why does he want to go? Put most simply, Oxbridge is a big step up from China’s top universities (Beihua?), and given his research interests, being in Europe will help. But he highlighted for me other key reasons why his classmates want to study in the West too. One is peer pressure: for China’s brightest, it’s been ‘the thing to do’ for quite a while (ever since the Qing dynasty, a historian might argue). Another is, more obviously, the prospect of a shiny CV, and money crisp in hand. And this more so than learning for learning’s sake; a criticism of China’s youth that I’ll wager any Chinese over forty will echo to you if you ask them.

And why does he want to come back? Again, a chief reason is deceptively simple: it’s alienating to live in a different culture. China is his motherland. England isn’t. (I can’t resist interjecting here this little link to a wonderful quote by Jack London, about living in a culture not one’s own, which Granite Studio ‘reposts’). Another factor: Tony feels that if he’s away from China for too long, “I might lose touch with minor changes in the Chinese way of thinking”. On top of those, ever-present, are more material concerns: there simply seem to be more appealing job opportunities for skilled Chinese in China than there are anywhere else.

But what of that buzzword fourth reason: turtles returning to ‘contribute’ to China? Tony tells me a telling titbit: a government slogan aimed at students going overseas used to read 回国服务 (hui guo fuwu … return to your country, to serve); now it reads 为国服务 (wei guo fuwu … serve [for] your country). Well, Tony hopes to serve too. Academic as his interests are, in his personal statement to Oxford he wrote – with intriguing vagueness – of his desire to also be a “practitioner in the future, to promote effective communication between China and Europe”. But he is cynical as to how effective a returning turtle’s contribution can actually be. For one, it’s “too hopeless” to think of changing *all *China – this is why, he tells me, many of his friends hope to return to China to make a difference on a local level, most commonly their hometown (this is fascinating, I think).

And next, Tony tells me, it’s very difficult it is to get into China’s Foreign Ministry if you studied abroad, as these applicants “need investigation” and the powers that be don’t want to expend resources on this. (Yes, yes, Deng Xiaoping went to Paris, don’t nitpick.) Lowering his voice out of embarrasment and not stealth, Tony adds at this point that this is one reason why the “quality of Chinese diplomats is not so good”.

Besides, what is it precisely that these turtles learn overseas? I remember an English friend, Peter Martin, whose professor at Beida (he was taught by Pan Wei, but I don’t recall if this particular professor was Pan Wei) would complain to his foreign students about his Chinese wards who went to America to study … Chinese politics. Study American politics in America! this professor would cry. And then come back and apply that knowledge. Don’t go to Mars to study Earth. Tony’s reply to this is fair enough: the English language discourse and academic understanding of China is dominated by the “Western perspective”, and “it needs more Chinese voices”.

Nethertheless, the question still floats: do returning turtles really return with a precious load of new knowledge balanced on their shells? Or do they spend their time in the West speaking Chinese with other turtles, studying their own country and not the country they are in, and coming back full of new food but not necessarily a new perspective?

This by no means my opinion, simply food for thought. I hope it’s flavoursome, now that we’ve all digested our Christmas pudding. Happy new year, and … at the risk of being labelled an ‘infrequently updated blog’ … my next post will be next decade.


  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/07/world/asia/07scholar.html

    Also, I wonder when foreigners will have to make that obligatory stint to China for their coming to age or as a quality guarantee of their employability on the international stage.

  2. “I might lose touch with minor changes in the Chinese way of thinking”.

    Alec, that was just precious…I’ve long felt the same way about the places where I find myself. Being away for too long will make me rusty. It’s the “Luke Skywalker” effect.

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