China's Reverse Brain Drain

China has fought a battle against brain drain since Deng Xiaoping opened the nation's doors 30 years ago. Many of the country's brightest have streamed out and few have returned: of the estimated 815,000 who left to study abroad from 1978 to 2004, only about a quarter came back, according to official data. Yet now, with the country's economy booming and its prestige growing, more and more Chinese expats, or hai gui (sea turtles), are starting to swim home. Lured by patriotism, family, market forces and generous government schemes, they and even some Western-born academics are moving to China in growing numbers.

Most cite adventure and the chance to make a difference. Huang Ming is typical. Born in China, he went to the United States for grad school in 1985, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen and getting tenure at Cornell. But he moved back a couple of years ago and now teaches at Beijing's Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. The difference is stark. "In the U.S. I teach 24-year-olds," he says, whereas in China two thirds of his executive-M.B.A. students are company bosses. That means that "here we can make an immediate difference in the decision making of senior executives," Huang says.

For Daniel Bell, a Canadian political philosopher, the biggest draw was the chance to get an up-close view of China's young elite. "One has to have an appetite for risk," says Bell, who now teaches at Beijing's Tsinghua University. But being an insider-outsider at China's most prestigious school has supplied material for his latest book and enhanced his reputation.

Though more Western schools are willing to share their faculties—letting academics like Huang keep their tenure while they move home part time—going to China still carries risks. The pay is often low, and abandoning the U.S. system can mean losing seniority and job security. Also worrisome are the lack of free speech in China and the risk of political interference, as well as the prospect of facing passive students used to rote learning.

Yet the lure of China can prove irresistible. Funding schemes set up to entice scientists home offer returnees full professorships as well as research grants of 2 million yuan ($292,000) and the chance to lead a research team. But there's a catch—they have to give up their foreign citizenship to make sure China gets full credit for their research. Nonetheless, the main scheme has attracted nearly 1,000 returnees since 1994.

There are no national statistics on how many foreign academics now teach in China, but business and finance professors are the most visible—in part because their fields are relatively lucrative. Chen Fangrou, a Wharton Ph.D. with a tenured post at Columbia, is now working to recruit 40 overseas staff for Shanghai Jiao Tong University's business school, where he is on a three-year secondment as dean. The school rakes in about $17 million a year in fees, giving it plenty of cash to lure foreigners.

China is also an attractive research environment, a giant field lab with 1.3 billion subjects undergoing rapid transformation. "If somebody is concerned with the big themes of social and political change, Beijing is the place to be," says Bell. And the country offers rich opportunities for business professors, since its industries are exploding in an economy that breaks all the rules. Access to key players is also good: "I have more opportunities to talk to manufacturers here than in the U.S.," says Chen.

As for academic freedom, most migrants have no complaints. Bell, who previously taught in Singapore, says he suffered more political interference there than at Tsinghua. "I've designed my own courses [here]"—including one on democratic theory—"with no constraints," he says. And the students' passivity quickly evaporates once they discover they're expected to argue, says Peking University economist Michael Pettis.

Some academics worry that giving up jobs at prestigious U.S. schools to head to China could lead them to become too isolated. Though the Internet makes things easier, "nothing beats face-to-face contact," says Huang. But most scholars agree that the prospects of being able to return to the West depend on how much they can publish, which makes the light teaching load they're offered another advantage. Even academic isolation can prove useful, since there are fewer rivals jostling for access to the same research materials. As all this suggests, moving to China can still prove risky. But like much else in the country's full-tilt economy, while the dangers may be great, so are the rewards.