Even as hordes of less employable expatriates return, the brightest remain abroad. A study funded by America’s National Science Foundation found that 92% of Chinese with American PhDs still lived in that country five years after graduation. For Indians, the figure was 81%, for South Koreans 41% and for Mexicans 32%.
To lure such superstars back, the Chinese government is pouring pots of money into a scheme called 1,000 Talents, which offers generous subsidies and other perks. The powerful Organisation Department of the Communist Party is urging regional leaders and university heads to meet quotas for securing talent. In a forthcoming paper, Mr Wang and David Zweig of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology argue that China has been “perhaps the most assertive government in the world” in such efforts.
Will it work? It seems doubtful. Despite the policies, returning entrepreneurs hit many problems. Labour and land costs are rising, the theft of intellectual property is still rampant and corruption is widespread. Few top-tier scientists have returned. Mr Wang and Mr Zweig’s paper explains why: “If China wants to bring back the best, it needs a fundamental reform of its academic and scientific institutions” to break the power of politicised administrators over hiring and funding…. Rather than just shovelling out subsidies, Chinese officials might do better to strengthen the rule of law, root out corruption and clean up China’s air, water and food. Sea turtles would be sure to notice.