China: Draining the brain?

Both the blogosphere and the mainstream media in China have been alerting us to the country’s severe brain drain. According to the Global Times, around 1.4 million Chinese have gone abroad as students and scholars since 2007, with only a quarter returning after graduation. The Blue Book on Global Politics and Security, published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also produced statistics on the situation. Its co-author Li Xiaoli claimed,

It has been a great loss for China which is now in dire need of people of expertise to see well-educated professionals leave after the country has invested a lot in them.

Why is there such a vast exodus of China’s brightest to the shores of Europe, Australia, the UK and the US? As the London School of Economics’ Bingchun Meng told me, there are practical reasons of research funding and how far a salary in China can match the benefits of the West. But, unsurprisingly, there are deeper concerns of the Chinese system of education: “one issue was whether I would be able to talk about whatever I wanted to talk about in my class. Would there be any limits put on the way I design my curriculum?” Meng said. As a social scientist, furthermore, what Meng valued from her education both in the USA and UK was the autonomy of thinking, questioning and critiquing. “I was not sure if, after being in the West, I could go back to the Chinese system or push the envelope.”

What ‘s the online opinion? Blogger Nansongzhuang describes the situation vividly:



Every year, the number of Master and PhD students graduated in China is similar to the U.S. However, if you track their undergraduate degrees, they mostly come from band 2, 3 or 4 university. We have a phenomena like this: band 1 undergraduate students, band 2 master students, band 3 PhD and band 4 professors. Moreover, with the expansion in the number of undergraduate students, the quality is not as good as before. In order to serve the short-sighted interest, the expansion of undergraduate student has turned the university into a garbage production house. Their products cannot survive in the market, they could not find suitable jobs. Now the major garbages are the PhD, especial those from the band 1 universities. Can you imagine that the backbone of their academics are those who have failed to pass the undergraduate entrance exam? This is a landscape with Chinese characteristics.


Where have all our band one graduate students gone? They have mostly traveled to the U.S and Europe, to where they can enjoy openness and freedom.

As another blogger, Hezhihong, further explains:




A leader told me: Don't be proud, you can't do anything with your wit. No matter how extraordinary and smart you are, or even you can make a nuclear bomb out of nothing. They can stop you from doing that and order you to swipe floor and clean up the Dong-guan street everyday! What can you do?…
I think most of the students who travel aboard are from wealthy families. Their family members had been through the above situation. They are no escaping from the cruel reality in mainland China, but they just don't want to spend their energy on this kind of competition with Chinese characteristics.
“Strong relation is productivity”, “if you can settle a conflict, you are good”, these are the logics among Chinese official and job market.

Throughout the English-speaking blogosphere in China, allusions have been made to a continuation of the Cultural Revolution. One chinaSMACK forum post claimed the excesses from 1966-76 “significantly degraded Chinese ‘educated, literate, artistic people’, but not totally destroyed.” One other forum-goer stated, “how can we expect any Chinese to really be an intellectual? 1.3 billion people and not one Nobel Prize should not be a surprise to anyone.”

Shanghaiist, meanwhile, published details of a Gallup survey, which showed that one in five university-educated Chinese want to jump ship for foreign lands:

So far, China's economic exuberance has not translated to widespread confidence in job markets. Brain drain will continue to be a concern as long as college-educated Chinese 1) fail to see job growth outpacing the influx of people to the cities and 2) compare their pay levels unfavorably to those of professionals in developed countries.

Even the aforementioned state-run Global Times produced a scathing opinion piece on the issue, in which it claimed “China has no educational innovation at all… [its] educational assessment system is a mix of ideas borrowed from the rest of the world.” It has been said that, in lieu of being provided with practical skills, university graduates have even been replaced by migrant workers in the job market.

Things became a little more heated in the summer of 2008, when a hacker/student reporter broke into Tsinghua University’s website and posted an essay that claimed “university education system is in effect ‘pouring s**t into the students’ minds’.” In reporting the event, chinaSMACK went on to claim,

Today’s various institutions of higher learning, including Tsinghua and Beijing University, no longer have the educational goal of fostering talent. Serious academic corruption, dry and irrelevant to society curriculum, and rote memorization teaching methods will lead to students developing rigid ways of thinking, losing interest in the curriculum, losing confidence in the college and even China’s entire education system.

Yet, as the website did point out, the upper levels are taking heed. In response to the hacker’s condemnation of Chinese education, Tsinghua’s principal Gu Binglin said, “I believe a real university should foster students’ independent skill, unique thinking methods, and the spirit to challenge authority.” He advocated ‘unique thinking methods’ (“trying different things to find solve problems, of grabbing hold of a line and then feeling your way forward”) and a more debate-centred classroom environment, indicating that such reform would be key to China’s higher education.

As a British student in China myself, the differences between the learning environments are clear: here, a narrative style of teaching is prevalent, with little engagement from students and much less critical debate than in my lecture halls in London. Meng also admitted that, upon moving to Penn State from Nanjing University, it took her about a year to get up to speed with the rigorous and participatory learning styles of the USA.

However, more recently it has been said that this severe brain drain is making a u-turn. This recent feature in Business Week shows how science-educated returnees are drawn in by the opportunity to create science programmes in the PRC, with its economic boom and increasing government-sanctioned programmes that aim to draw back in doctorates.

Blogging at, UC Berkeley's Vivek Wadwha has also looked into this further: having done research on 1203 Chinese and Indian returnees, he found 51% of the Chinese held Masters degrees and 41% had PhDs, and shared an average age of 33. Further, 84% of the Chinese participants cited professional opportunities as a stimulating factor.

While they make less money in absolute terms at home, most said their salaries brought a “better quality of life” than what they had in the U.S (…) When it came to social factors, 67% of the Chinese (…) cited better “family values” at home. Ability to care for aging parents was also cited, and this may be a hidden visa factor: it’s much harder to bring parents and other family members over to the U.S. than in the past. For the vast majority of returnees, a longing for family and friends was also a crucial element.

74% of Chinese students and 86% of Indian students believe that the best days for their home country’s economy lie ahead. National Science Foundation studies have shown that the “5 year stay rates” for Chinese and Indians science and engineering PhD’s have historically been around 92 % and 85% respectively (NSF tracks these 5 years at a time, and the vast majority stay permanently).

Yet, the attraction of Chinese scientists and mathematicians back to their motherland is just one facet of a wider issue. The potential to continue this reversal is also dependent on whether or not China can improve its research environment, as UPI Asia Online’s Cong Cao also states. In Meng's view, although the Chinese Ministry of Education has been pushing forward in reforms, especially in attempts to alter the intensive university entrance exam system, educational exchanges with the West are also crucial: “this is not in terms of the West being superior, but they would be helpful in allowing Chinese students to step back and question many previous assumptions.”

Deeper reforms need to be made in the education sector that go beyond government-sanctioned programmes, yet remnants of the Cultural Revolution may well be visible in the lack of critical teaching styles that are too entrenched to be changed overnight. Will Gu Binglin's ideal of ‘unique thinking methods’ ever be realised in Chinese universities?

The Chinese quotes are translated by Oiwan Lam.


  • Ranger_lost_in_Mordor

    I’m now a second year graduate stduent from mainland China.I believe I know better what it is like to live and study in China than anyone who has never had to do so.After 2 years fruitless working life. I finally
    decided to come back for Master Degree and hoped to
    find a way breaking out of here. It’s just not I don’t like this country(I do hate the communist government though) or I
    can’t get a job to survive here. It’s just the ways and rules you need to follow to get sth done and the bleak prospect you can see from whatever a chinese education that really drives me crazy,and thanks to the rules and cronyism I had experienced, I’m now getting a lot more flexiable ,or better put it, unscrupulous when I’m having to get sth done. But unlike those who are born to big shot daddies and are ableto affoard the money needed to study abroad, students like me without any solid strong social and economic network have to rely on nobody but themselves.
    and here is sth fresh for you guys who may not have the chance to take a closer look at what chinese GRADUATE EDUCATION looks like .
    Basically there are bound to be a few cliques infested in whatever universities in mainland China, my school is not an
    exception. Typically there are 2 types of cliques who don’t
    quite give a shyt to each other, one is those we call Greedy Bloodsucking Vampires who make their students work like slaves without the need to pay them ,at least with meagre amount of money. One of my classmates is now instructed by this sort of professor who made him work on the project for entire 2 weeks with less than 5 hours sleep each day ,even though he was about to cough his lung out at that time. Another type of professors are what we call Nerds Living in Fairylands. This is the kind of teachers who are losing out grounds and are not able to compete with potato-cooking mothers outside, so they sit back to school ,leaving the whole world behind, and live on what they believe ACADEMIC RESEARCH with a pinched pocket.
    The point is most of the stuff they do are not practical and
    can not even help their students to get a job outside on
    the job market. If you are not seeing any value in what you are doing, are you going to take it seriously ? I of course wouldn’t !
    Chinese education is nothing but a big fiasco while the communist government is a huge lousiest crappy joke. :)

  • “since 2007 … only a quarter returning after graduation”
    if i remember well later situation already got to state when majority already returns home
    so maybe so long time statistics usage only looks too negative

  • @Ranger_lost_in_Mordor

    Thank you for joining in in the conversation. It is fantastic to get a student’s perspective. But I too am a graduate student in China and so I have experienced everything you mentioned. My apologies if I came across as yet another Westerner looking down upon China in the post.

    I would agree with you that studies are not practical and do not prepare students in getting a job. But this is not the point of university education: instead, it is supposed to provide you with transferrable skills that you can take through with you to your chosen career. Perhaps the problem, then, is that this factor is not clearly communicated to Chinese university students?

    • Ranger_lost_in_Mordor

      Well,I’m actually an engineering student, and I love
      science and logic.But most of my employeed classmates
      told me technology/technical knowledge doesn’t matter
      in a workspace, all you need to deal with is interpersonal
      relationships. This is somewhat being justified by one of myclassmates who is now a senior officer of a local
      state-run enterprises. He is the guy who barely graduated !
      Having network or guanxi seems to the only applicable skills
      to get the job done in China so that the teachers wouldn’t bother to provide any transferrable skills, and I just wonder
      if they know there is any themselves !
      Sorry to be so dramatic, but this is based on the very facts.

  • Y. Borres

    I”m glad there’s discussion on the topic, better yet, it’s among people who have firsthand experience of the system. Being a young person born and raised in HK and an undergrad in China, it is shocking how differently students from the two sides of the border are, in terms of their Ability and Allowance to have perspectives of their own.
    Whenever a lecturer or a classmate expresses themselves on, say, politics, I would say to myself, “Respect his/her perspective. You don’t have to agree with him/her to listen.” I wonder if I were to speak out my incontestable belief in democracy and individual freedom, would I be given the same level of respect, if not acceptance. This has been foreseen, but it becomes overwhelming when it appears as though everyone else has had a special package installed in their brains! It makes a university class seems so immature.
    On methods of study, I can only say one thing – Everyone has the same answers! Model answers for everyone!

    • Ranger_lost_in_Mordor


      You get to the point.
      Lack of respect for other people’s perspectives,especially when it comes to political issue, is one of the numerous syptoms of the numerous stall-fed students victimized from almost a centry long, nationalized and distorted education system.You may have a better understanding of this by taking a look at the virulent comments people dropped on chinese websites. As for the model thing,
      since the communist party was actually a drone of Soviet Union, you simply can’t expect the kids it breeds can be any diversified.

      • Y. Borres

        Not just on political topics, but also on purely academic matters – as small as a teacher’s interpretation of a certain text and a student’s attempt to challenge it, without any disrespect to the teacher. I’ve seen many times in which the young mind that is capable of critical thinking, instead of being praised, was rejected, condemned. What, then, became of the students who saw this happen? Stand up and protest? Walk out? NO. They stick to a copy of the teacher’s teaching aid and memorize everything in it. Note-taking is not that important here… It makes me wonder if I have to attend the class at all.

      • Y. Borres

        Also, institutions need to work on making electives more significant, to the teacher and to the student than they are now. Most of those courses are scheduled at night. Course requirement cannot be any looser. Teaching quality varies from teacher to teacher – I wonder what some teachers had done before the invention of Microsoft Powerpoint software. Barely half of the roster shows up; those who do don’t even bother to listen to the lecturer. No one is expected to have a core textbook. Teachers do not even bother to recommend one, let alone references. Students were graded according to a open-book exam and/or an essay on certain topics. Plagiarism has been enhanced by search engines and WWW.

    • “Everyone has the same answers! Model answers for everyone!”
      friend of mine was teaching at japanese university and he said was unable to get opposite opinion from students
      when he said them it openly they replied how can student argue with him – he is a teacher
      (and it was not just case oppose him directly but also other public version)

      • Y. Borres

        I am not familiar to tertiary education in Japan. From what your friend said, it does suggest that the wrongly asserted idea of the teacher is always wiser is not exclusive to Chinese institutions. It is wrong because without the questions of a fresh mind, civilization wouldn’t have evolved in such a dynamic manner… And I have to say that most people do acknowledge the importance of questioning. Some openly, some with much restrain.

        • Ranger_lost_in_Mordor

          This is very interesting when you mentioned
          the devoid spirit of skepticism.I have always believed that
          any malfunctions can be traced back to the particular
          management level ,wethere it happens within a corporation
          or in a larger macro setting. While most asian countries
          have a hisotry of more paternalistic ruling style than countries in the west, that could be a major reason for
          the lack of skeptism in Asia. and this sounds even truer when you look at the chinese glorifying magnificent
          5 thousand years of authoritarian hisotry and how the chinese government is now muffling and trampling the pposition. That surely is not going to foster an education with the spirit of questioning.
          to foster a

          • “lack of skeptism in Asia”
            didn’t buddha say “be in the doubt” even in case of his ideas?
            maybe in china konfuc wins?
            (btw. going to museum in china you will see graph with china world oldest history followed by india, in india you can see first stripe with indian 7 thousands followed by china, i never been in egypt)

  • M.V.Sankaran

    A perusal of the above post and the comments thereunder clearly indicates that everywhere there is this discontent and grievance regarding the existing system of education — whether undergraduate, postgraduate or doctoral studies at the University level or even with the preliminary and secondary level of education at the school level. This is true not only within communist People’s Republic of China (PRC), but also, within India, which practices a ‘mixed economy’sort of system, with State monopoly in certain (core) sectors and private enterprise in certain other (non-core) sectors. There is a mixed sort of system even in certain areas like education, where private enterprise coexists with, and augments State initiative, but subject to certain regulations of the State for grant of recognition and for grants-in-aid. No one seems to be satisfied with the way things actually work out in the educational sphere (apart from many other spheres) and there is constant search for international level standards and a transparency that seems to be elusive. The result is ‘variable functioning ‘that even judicial intervention cannot often cure. ‘Merit’ is often lost in the meshes of a ‘reservation’ system for those caste groups and tribal groups as are educationally and economically backward, albeit without a proper system in place to remove the ‘creamy layer’ among those groups who have already become educationally and economically advanced. This kind of approach towards ‘group advancement’ and ‘equality’ affects the employment sector also, particularly with respect to recruitment to the Government (Central,State and Union Territories — in all the three organs of the State, that is, the Legislature, the Bureaucracy and the Judiciary), the Public Sector Corporations and Autonomous Institutions besides the Local Authorities ( Municipal Corporations and their Undertakings). There is a great pressure on the Private Sector also to conform to the policies of the State Organizations, particularly with respect to provisions for the ‘sons of the soil’ meaning thereby the ‘linguistic regional groups’ based on the official language of the region concerned within the country. There is an official language of the Union Government (viz., ‘Hindi’), but like the ‘Russian’ language in the former Soviet Union, that is not the language of all the regional States, particularly in the south and for the sake of those people, English (the language of the erstwhile Colonial rulers and now, as an internationally recognized language) continues to enjoy ‘associate official language’ status. Still the ‘English’ language is not taught universally at the preliminary and secondary school levels across the country and there is this gulf between the rural and urban areas with respect to the learning of, and acquiring a good command over that language, which is hard to bridge. Those students who are fortunate enough to acquire a good command over the English language alone have access to the higher educational facilities in the leading Universities of the U.S.A., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Needless to say that they are the fortunate few who are born to well-to-do businessmen, professional persons, judges, senior bureaucrats, scientists and engineers who are gainfully employed within the country. And it is no secret that over the last five or six decades that many of their wards who have sought higher education in the western countries, and found lucrative employment there, have chosen to stay there and that is how, for instance, the Indian ‘diaspora’ as they call the Indians settled in the U.S.A., have grown to nearly three million strong, almost one percent of the population of that country. And they are in the ‘preferential’ category and not just motels, eateries and grocery shop owners. But, and I say this with some satisfaction, now that the economy in India is purportedly ‘booming’, there are lots of Indian students and expatriate Indians who want to return to their country and start their lives anew here, just as in China, with a difference that they would be returning to a country that has a democratic system of government (based on adult franchise) in place with the initial ‘socialist republic’ tendencies being replaced now by private initiative and enterprise and with less and less governmental regulations. And I say, welcome home to conflicts and tensions of a different kind from those of the developed Western countries!

  • Tony

    I’m now a sophomore in a key university in Chinese mainland.When I read this article, I feel deep worried about our future. I can absolutely say, that most people around me are lack of humanistic spirit and the awareness of the obligations of citizens. In my opinion,they’re the most silly geese in the world of university students all around the world.All the education we accept from Primary school to univeristy is to make us more foolish,in order to make us addict ourselvse to the control of the government(or the communist you hate).Besides, I’m the one who doesn’t have a big shot daddy so I have to rely on myself to fight for the accessory to go abroad. Now I’m not interesting in many courses in my university and I think the college is playing a joke on us all.They even aren’t aware of the word \responsibility\ .I agree with you on that Chinese education is nothing but a big fiasco while the government or the department of education is a huge lousiest crappy joke! Can I have your e-mail address? I want to contact with you and communicate with you intelligent guys! Thank u!

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