China’s reverse brain drain

opinion March 04, 2019 01:00

By Suwatchai Songwanich
CEO Bangkok Bank (China)

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China, like many developing economies, has experienced a brain drain for decades as some of its best and brightest minds travelled overseas for their education and employment. The tech revolution and the rise of startup unicorns attracted even more to places like Silicon Valley.



Many of those people are now choosing to return home. There are a number of reasons for this. President Donald Trump’s trade war with China has certainly made many Chinese people feel less comfortable about living and working in the US. It has also become more difficult to get a working visa for the US, thwarting many graduate students who get offers to work there but are forced to return home. But by far the biggest attraction is homegrown opportunity.

This is especially true in the tech space, where the Valley’s bright lights are being increasingly drowned out by mainland China’s tech hubs, such as Shenzen and Beijing. This is helping transform the brain drain into a brain gain, as many Chinese people working overseas return and help embed their expertise in local businesses and academic institutes or launch their own startups.

These strong opportunities are a direct result of government policy which has for years encouraged direct investment in areas such education and technology infrastructure, while setting clear supporting policy goals, such as becoming a global hub for artificial intelligence. This helped foster a vibrant technology ecosystem which has built on the success of China’s tech giants and entrepreneurs, including Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Huawei. 

I recently wrote about how resources available to China’s top scientists are the envy of many of their Western counterparts. Once the best Chinese scientists would seek research work overseas, but today Chinese postdoctoral researchers often get experience in the West and then head home where the Chinese government helps set them up in world-class facilities. 

The power of China’s public and private sectors working together for the same purpose has been so successful that other countries have been called on to emulate it. Duncan Haldane, a British-born scientist who co-won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2016, suggested India emulate China’s model to reverse its own brain drain while he was speaking at the Indian Science Congress in Punjab in January. 

While India tends to focus on theoretical science, Haldane said it could learn from China’s success in heavily investing in experimental science, a factor that has helped bring talent back home. “The country [China] has been quite successful in reversing brain drain, getting people to come home, making it attractive for excellent expatriates to come back and get support to build up a laboratory," he said.

Thailand can learn much from this process. The rise of China’s technology hubs provides new opportunities for local technologists, scientists and entrepreneurs to get experience in Asia. To support this we need to see stronger development of foreign languages at schools and universities, especially English and Chinese.

Secondly, we have the ability to leapfrog some of the development steps that places like China have taken by creating a strong local ecosystem for technology and startups, supported by quality education and incentives to attract foreign companies to invest locally.

For more columns in this series please visit www.bangkokbank.com.