December 2009

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2009.

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.

As the jolly red man approaches, here are a couple of green thoughts … beginning with a message from Peking University students:


No, this does not mean “down with Christmas”.

Rather, this was December 17th, the day before the end of the climate change conference in Copenhagen. During the day, students gathered on the ‘triangle’ (an open space on campus where the Tiananmen movement was born twenty years ago) to support action promised by the Chinese government to reduce carbon emissions. Then in the evening,

thousands of PKU students turned off their lights for 12minutes and 17 seconds. The figures of “COP15”, “↓C” and “V” composed of light appeared on the dorm buildings, vividly delivering the students’ wishes to reduce carbon emission and cope with climate change.

The full story is on Beida’s website, here.

Next, a snap from a conference I attended on the 15th, on my new campus, Tsinghua University: “Green leap: a new strategy for sustainable development”. (I take the liberty of modifying their own English title:)

The gist, put most succintly by the American keynote speaker, prof. Stuart Hart of Cornell University (and horrifyingly simplified by me here) is putting the geeks who invent clean technology in the same room as more profit-minded businessmen, helping green tech to make some green dollars. China, with its high savings rate and market as gargantuan as its carbon emissions, will be key. (Not to mention China’s own contributions to green tech. On which note, this story by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker is simply a must read.)

To either side of me were Tsinghua students, clean shaved and buzz cut (I’ve yet to see any exception of note to this norm), concentrating on the Chinese translation coming through their thick headphones. They then took this headgear off to listen to Chinese panelists – from businessmen to a government representative – discuss and solidify the message. Their seriousness was as palpable as the smog outside the window.

I’ll write more specifics of Chinese student attitudes to Copenhagen after the holidays. For the moment, a merry Christmas to all, and a new year’s wish for a healthy world for China’s youth – and this youth – to grow up in.

William and the big bad dam

Much like the three gorges dam, this post is behind schedule. I took this picture a month ago, at the end of my boat trip down the Yangtze from Chongqing. Back in Beijing, I asked my environment-minded Chinese friend William for his two mao on the subject. In the spirit of tidying up before the new year, I’ll write up what he told me. And in the spirit of it being the morning of Christmas eve, I’ll write it up in brief.

“It’s impossible to be objective” were the first words out of William’s mouth. I remember this as: a) I’d learnt the word ‘objective’ that morning, and b) my attitudes to the three gorges dam were anything but. Like Peter Hessler in River Town (which I read while we boated past Fuling, the river town in question), I instinctively felt that turning a flowing river into a potentially stagnating reservoir was wrong, as was drowning century-old temples and relocating millions to do it. More so, shouldn’t the message be cooperation with nature and not conquest of nature? As I neared the dam itself, whenever I struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger I would ask if they supported the project, and would always get the same answer: “dangran”. “Of course.” Why shouldn’t I? My government does.

But I knew that dissenting opinions were out there too, and, frankly, I expected an environmentalist like William to share them. Rather, he choose to sit on the fence (or dam, if you insist). To make his point, he retold a story of a professor at Beida – and friend of William’s old teacher, who told him the story – who was invited by the government to participate on a panel of experts, created to appraise the dam before it was green-lighted. (Or more realistically, in William’s opinion, pressured by the government to scientifically justify the decision they had already made.)

Regardless of any pressure on him, as the story was told me, this professor considered the project from all angles and decided … to abstain. He simply couldn’t tally up the pros (energy, flood control, more energy…) and cons (disaster risk, cost, humanitarian concerns…) and choose a side. Who could objectively judge if damming the Yangtze was for the better or worse? What was the point, if a government as stubborn and unshackled as China’s was clearly going to go ahead anyway?

And between the lines, I got the impression William was also telling me: China’s naysayers – so yaysayed in the West – have to pick their fights.

Kowtowing apologies for a link post, but this clever set of images (an exhibit by Yang Liu, a Chinese artist, living in Berlin) depicting the differences between Chinese and Westerners will strike a chord with any in the middle Kingdom, or raise a curious eyebrow among the foreign devils. For instance, shower times:

Or, even more head-noddingly, queuing:

And finally (an artistic pick) mutual stereotypes:

Again, sorry for being lazy. Somewhere between a hundred new Chinese words a day and my kitchen catching fire, my blog is meowing at me for attention. I’ll feed it before too long.

The other day, Leonidas invited me along to the opening of a Greek art exhibit in downtown Beijing. He in turn had been welcomed to the event by his old Greek teacher at Beida, and I finally heard Leonidas live up to his name and speak Greek – albeit modern, not ancient. I couldn’t understand a word of course (it was all Chinese to me), but Leonidas enthusiastically rolled his ‘r’s and clearly is not as rusty as he claims to be.

This elegantly incomprehensible third language adds to the mystique of Leonidas for me. His style of dressing reminds me of some young don at Oxford: cardigan over shirt, all tucked into brown corduroy trousers; keen eyes behind thin glasses; spotless shoes; briefcase heavy with god knows what (Plato’s complete dialogues?) in his hand. He is quiet mannered and springs philosophical paradoxes on you out of nowhere, like this one from Bertrand Russell (simplified!) which keeps me awake tonight:

Imagine a container in which everything which exists is contained. Is the container itself inside?

His English is one of the best of the Chinese I follow on this blog, together with Tony’s. This means that he often falls into the trap laid for those proficient at another language: over-using big and impressive words where little ones would do. The canapes aren’t tasty, they’re “succulent”. The event isn’t interesting, it’s “most stimulating”. That kind of thing. Each word pronounced carefully and with slow relish, not out of pretention (or only a little bit), but more – my guess – out of a kind of thinking which runs “I’ve just studied about 10,000 infrequently used English words for my GRE, here is a situation where one of them seems vaguely appropriate … so I’m damn well going to say it”.

On which note, Leonidas has just got the results back from the GRE exam he took a month or two back. I won’t publish them, obviously, but I’m sure he won’t mind me mentioning that he got 800 out of 800 in the ‘quantative section’ (i.e. maths). In the writing section, where his English was put to the test, he was disappointed by his score (though it didn’t strike me as too bad) and is uncertain if it will be good enough for his coming application to study in America. But – typical Leonidas thoughtfulness – he took this GRE a year earlier than he needed to, giving the option of another crack next year.

There is more to come on his plans, and probably more hidden skills of his I am yet to discover. For the moment, you may be wondering what relevance the title of this post has to all this. Well, it seems to be what the artist whose works were on exhibit had in mind: that is, a visual exploration of the shared whatever between ancient China and ancient Greece. In my eyes, and I’m no expert, this is a pretty lame, cigarette-paper thin concept – and the art struck me as something a kid did hastily on KidPix for his art homework. That’s why I wrote about Leonidas instead of it.

But, if your curiosity is still thirsty, here are some pics I took on my mobile. Galinihta!

The Greek ambassador to China (middle) leapt on this exhibit as an opportunity to fawn over useful connections in Beijing. Here he presents a painting from the exhibit to the head of the Ministry of Something-to-do-with-The-Arts-which-I-didn’t-quite-catch.

A typical example of the paintings on display. Maybe I’m a pretentious git, but I find this atrocious. The Chinese characters read “Greece” … “China” … “wisdom” … “knowledge”. The symbol next to the artists’ name bottom right is of his star sign, Uranus.

Zheng quan: “political power”. But what really, I mean, really, do Mao, Zeus (is that Zeus on the left?) and Atlas have in common? Outside of Mao’s imagination, and the concept of ‘pandering’, that is.

My personal favourite: Jesus’ disembodied head floating in the middle of four trippy-mirror-effect sleeping Buddhas*. The text on the left: “merge(d) together”; and on the right: “the afterlife”. Deep.