China's Brain Drain

As China’s economy steams toward superpower status, the country has rolled out splashy programs to lure elites back from overseas. One problem: many don’t seem to want to return. In 2009 Beijing launched the Thousand Talents program, dangling generous perks for top-level researchers and entrepreneurs willing to go back home. It reeled in some big names, including Princeton biologist Yigong Shi and Northwestern professor Yi Rao. But more than a year and a half on, the numbers have stalled at about 600. Meanwhile, the number of wealthy Chinese essentially buying their way into the U.S. and Canada via “immigrant investor” visas surged to record highs last year.

This may signal that China’s “hardware” in the form of top-flight facilities is not enough to attract and retain top minds, experts say. Instead, the country must focus on upgrading its “software” basics, such as health care, education, and academic freedom. In May, President Hu Jintao announced a 10-year plan to do just that, calling talent “the most important resource” for the country’s continued development. But in a recent survey by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, while 75 percent of respondents saw the talent exodus as a serious problem, the same percentage said they’d gladly go West themselves if given the chance.