12/21/2008 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that C.S. Kiang, an environmental scientist, left Georgia Tech and became dean of Peking University’s College of Environmental Science. Shiyi Chen, an engineering professor, left Johns Hopkins University and is now the Engineering Institute dean at Peking University. Yi Rao, a life sciences professor, left Northwestern University to become dean of Peking University’s School of Life Sciences.
Kiang, Chen and Rao belong to a rising number U.S.-educated Chinese scholars who are voluntarily returning to their homeland, a new phenomenon being closely watched by major American research universities. The repatriation of these scholars is part of an intense, carefully crafted effort by the Chinese government, universities, businesses and wealthy private citizens to make the communist nation a respected international player in every field of endeavor.
To fulfill its dream of becoming an even more powerful world player, China had to reverse the brain drain that took its best and brightest to the West. Before the 1980s, the repression of intellectual freedom and economic conditions prompted most Chinese citizens who studied in the United States to avoid returning home.
For many years, the government required students who wanted to study in America to sign an agreement requiring them to return to China immediately after they earned their degrees. This practice did not give the scholars enough time to gain the kind of international experience or make the professional contacts they would need to build respected careers. As a result, most of them remained in the United States or moved to other Western nations such as England, Germany, Australia, Canada and France.
During the 1980s, the Chinese government saw the error of its ways, and the then-State Education Commission began to implement a program to bring the nation’s scholars home.
“To sell skeptics on their homeland, the education commission’s foreign affairs bureau financed short lecture and research trips to China,” writes Mara Hvistendahl, a Chronicle correspondent in Shanghai. “The hope was that scholars would gradually strengthen ties with China, returning when the right opportunities presented themselves.
“Homesick scholars found their chance in 1998, when the central government unveiled a project designed to channel millions of dollars into a handful of elite universities in an effort to bring them to international prominence. It gave nine top universities the equivalent of $120-million each in grant money and stipulated that 20 percent go to hiring from overseas.”
From all indications, the project is working beyond expectations. According to the Xinhua News Agency, in an effort to entice 200,000 overseas Chinese to come home during 2006 to 2010, the Ministry of Personnel established science centers that would allow the scientists to continue the research they had begun abroad. The government went further and set up 50 special technological incubation centers over a five-year period to help repatriated scientists launch start-ups.
Another enticement for American-educated scholars to return is the broad preferential treatment they enjoy. They are appointed, among other advantages, to faculty posts at first-tier universities and hired as chairmen and deans and as directors of high-profile research projects.
But all has not been trouble-free.
“At less prestigious universities outside of Shanghai and Beijing, (returnees) face the stigma that they are returning to China because they failed overseas,” Hvistendahl wrote. “Conflict can intensify as the number and quality of returnees increase. In 2003, administrators at Peking University, themselves returnees, championed hiring reforms that would have favored candidates with overseas experience, requiring professors, among other things, to teach in a second language. The reforms provoked such opposition among locally educated faculty that the university had to scrap aspects of the plan.”
Although China is getting what it wished for – the return of its best scholars – the nation’s vibrant centers of higher education are becoming hotbeds of local resentment, jealousy and infighting.
Observers say that Chinese officials are not greatly worried. They see these problems as signs of success – the growing pains of a nation that is becoming a major player in the world of scholars. America’s research universities are watching these faraway developments with great interest.