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China: Draining the brain?

Categories: East Asia, China, Education

Both the blogosphere and the mainstream media in China have been alerting us to the country’s severe brain drain [1]. According to the Global Times [2], 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 [3], also produced statistics on the situation. Its co-author Li Xiaoli claimed [4],

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’ [5] Bingchun Meng [6] 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 [7]:



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 [8]:




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 [9] 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 [10], meanwhile, published details of a Gallup [11] 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 [2] 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 [12] that claimed “university education system is in effect ‘pouring s**t into the students’ minds’.” In reporting the event, chinaSMACK [12] 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 [12] 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 [13] from Nanjing University [14], 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 [15] 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 techcrunch.com [16], 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’ [17]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.