Chinese Sea Turtles Return Home

For nearly 15 years, china has been trying to engineer a "brain gain" by luring top scientific and technical talent home from the United States, and it's working. One major success story is the National Institute for Biological Sciences, created in 2003 with several advantages. Freed from the fundraising pressures of the U.S.—and from the often mindless red tape of traditional state-run Chinese institutions—researchers there say their lab environment, financed by the Chinese government, trumps what they could expect in America. They know from experience, since all 23 were educated in the U.S. In 2005 Dr. Feng Shao, 37, left Harvard Medical School to return to China after receiving a more generous deal from NIBS, where he now studies bacterial pathogens in a top-class lab, with a $300,000 annual budget. He says that in the U.S., "I might have a lab with just a few students and technicians. Here I have 16 or 17." The bottom line, says Shao, is that while his team has published six scientific papers since 2005, "elsewhere I might have done just two."

When Chinese strongman Deng Xiao-ping launched his dramatic "open door" economic reforms three decades ago, he knew a brain drain was inevitable. After all, China's own education system was a mess. Deng had only just resuscitated a university system devastated by the chaotic Cultural Revolution of 1966–76. Qualified teachers, even decent dorms, were few. Over the years, many Chinese brains did drain overseas. As of late 2008, a total of about 1.4 million Chinese had gotten student visas to go abroad since 1979, and just 390,000 had returned. Today, however, Deng's successors are scrambling to bring the best of that talent home. These returnees are dubbed hai gui—"sea turtles"—a pun on the phrase haiwai guilai, meaning "returned from overseas." "Sea turtles will be a catalyst for creativity," predicts Henry Wang Huiyao of the Western Returned Scholars Association. "China will become a real innovative power once it can get the talent."

Indeed, Beijing sees innovation as the magic bullet for rebalancing the Chinese economy. Sea turtles, with their world-class educations and facility in English—the language of international business and science—are a key part of the effort to create companies that take China up the economic food chain. At every level, officialdom is wooing sea turtles. For especially accomplished returnees, the central government is dangling generous job offers—and "welcome home" relocation bonuses of 1 million RMB (about $150,000)—to foreign-educated Chinese scientists, academics, financial experts, and M.B.A.s. Launched in December 2008, the "thousand talents program" aims to bring 2,000 key personnel home in the next five to 10 years. Wang says it's been "very effective. By the end of this year about 300 will have been recruited." Meanwhile, seven provincial governments have also kicked off their own mini-campaigns to ensure that they'll nab their share of sea turtles. "They know 2,000 aren't enough for all of China, so each is also looking for 1,000 returnees in the next five years," says Wang.

To be sure, throwing more money, more hardware, and more brains at the "innovation problem" doesn't guarantee success. By its very nature, creativity is impossible to mandate from the top down. And despite Western jitters about a Chinese monolith mass-producing science and engineering grads, a stultifying welter of systemic obstacles still stifles creative thought in China's mainstream academic and research fields. China now turns out more academic papers than Japan, Germany, and Britain combined, and awards more college degrees yearly than the U.S. and India put together, but quality standards in both areas remain a question. The hierarchical, Confucian roots in Chinese culture actually reinforce thinking inside the box by requiring students to listen unquestioningly to teachers' lectures; challenging elders is often seen as a dangerous sign of rebellion. Chinese schools suffer from plagiarism, red tape, and a lingering emphasis on rote learning. Funding to bring ideas to the market remains scarce. Meanwhile, gross infringements of intellectual-property rights (IPR) still occur. In late October, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke addressed a Guangdong province forum on innovation and intellectual property. He told NEWSWEEK that sea turtles will likely remain cautious about returning home to engage in R&D, at least for now. "You're not going to have bright minds inventing things if they fear those ideas will be counterfeited or stolen. If you want R&D, if you want high tech, you'll have to ensure robust IPR enforcement," he said.

In fact, Beijing hopes the returnees themselves will help create environments in which innovation can flourish (as did NIBS cofounder Wang Xiao-dong, a renowned biochemist at the University of Texas). "They know that IPR needs protecting, and they know how to play by the international rules. They'll set examples and make policy recommendations that the leadership will consider," says Henry Wang, himself a U.S.-educated returnee who set up a "sea-turtle think tank," which drafts papers that are sent to senior decision makers. Wang says that, after foreign media were barred from covering the aftermath of deadly riots in Tibet in March 2008, influential returnees advised the government against such bans; afterward, foreign reporters had much more access when reporting on Sichuan's earthquake and ethnic unrest in Urumqi.

While no one can transform China's dysfunctional academic and research system overnight, many returnees are promised the autonomy—and funding—to introduce merit-based procedures in their university departments, labs, and firms. By contrast, traditional Chinese units often dole out money based on nepotism and other personal connections. As the new sea-turtle-led research facilities at NIBS and other prestigious institutions like Tsinghua University suggest, research is booming in the hot life-science fields such as microbiology, immunology, and genetics. Though the extent of sea turtles' contribution to this growth is difficult to quantify, it is significant. Prof. Li Shengtian at Jiaotong University's School of Life Science and Biotechnology, in Shanghai, says 90 percent of his school's scientists are sea turtles, and they've been "taking the lead in innovative research." At NIBS, deputy director Gang Zhi claims that "in the past five years we've probably published more top-level papers than any university in China."

While the sea turtles are so far most prominent in academia and business, they are also starting to infiltrate government. Two ministers—Wan Gang, who heads the Science and Technology Ministry, and Health Minister Chen Zhu—are returnees, as are more and more local government officials, such as the mayor of Chengdu. Last year Health Minister Chen was instrumental in alerting the public to the presence of fatal toxins in milk products, which the dairy firm Sanlu had hushed up for weeks. "Transparency is key," Chen told NEWSWEEK. Innovation aside, the migration of the sea turtles is already changing culture in China.