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COMMENTARY: China's Decades-long Brain Drain Comes to Sudden End in Era of Trump

The U.S. president’s suggestion that almost all Chinese students are spies combines with the lure of dramatically higher salaries to send top scientists back home.

Mark Melnicoe
    Sep 08, 2018 4:25 AM  PT
COMMENTARY: China's Decades-long Brain Drain Comes to Sudden End in Era of Trump

The Trump administration's Cold War-like turn against China is repelling many of that country's top students and fueling their return home, reversing a brain drain that has long robbed the Chinese of their best researchers.

The trend, which is bolstered by rising post-doctorate salaries for researchers in China, is already boosting scientific progress there. As President Xi Jinping pushes his country headlong into key industries such as quantum computing, biopharmaceuticals, and artificial intelligence, China stands to gain a big advantage.

Some 350,000 Chinese students are now studying in America – comprising more than half of the total going to overseas universities. Many are in science and technology majors, and those in post-graduate programs represent the cream of the crop of China's students. Historically, the vast majority of those students have remained in the U.S. to pursue high-paying jobs.

But, according to a story Thursday in the South China Morning Post, more than 83 percent of Chinese students had returned home by the end of last year – the first year of the Trump administration. Many of them cite the chill that has settled over U.S.-China relations, particularly Trump's actions against immigration and his rhetoric about China.

Won't Work in Trump's America

"The problem of the brain drain no longer exists," Chen Guoqiang, director of the Center for Synthetic and System Biology at Tsinghua University, a top Beijing research institution, told the SCMP. "One important reason is the salary. Another reason is Trump."

At a dinner last month with corporate executives, Trump leveled the absurd charge that "almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy," Politico reported. He was referring to Chinese students.

Trump has spoken early and often about how China is "killing" and "ripping off" the U.S. on trade matters, and he has started a trade war that is rapidly escalating.  

It goes beyond ugly rhetoric. The U.S. State Department in June tightened visa stays for Chinese graduate students in certain "sensitive" scientific fields, shortening them from five years to just one.

Most Chinese researchers have seen enough. Liu Yang, a postdoc in the School of Aerospace Engineering at Beijing Institute of Technology, is one. She told the SCMP that she and her colleagues saw the growing xenophobia in the U.S. and won't work or study in America while Trump is in office.

"I am definitely not going to a country with increasing hostility against Chinese researchers," Liu told the respected Hong Kong-based newspaper.

Apart from the welcome mat in America being yanked, higher salaries in China are also pulling researchers back. It wasn't long ago that salaries of 3,000 yuan (less than $440) a month were the norm for recent post-doctorate researchers. With the advent of Made in China 2025 and the country's ramping up of basic scientific research, it's not uncommon to see salaries of 200,000 yuan a year and sometimes much more.

That makes research institutes in Shanghai, Beijing, and many other cities competitive with the West. The SCMP cited one research institute in the northeastern city of Dalian that was offering up to 600,000 yuan (over $87,000) in salary and bonuses, nearly twice the average post-doctorate fellow salary in the U.S., according to Glassdoor, a leading repository of corporate salary data.

A Different China Today

In 2016, China had more than 6,000 government-certified research institutes and companies ready to hire postdoctoral researchers. This was the year after President Xi introduced the Made in China 2025 program that seeks to make China a world leader in 10 high-tech fields over the next generation.

The country, which many people still think of as mainly a maker of cheap products, now sends astronauts to its own space station, manufactures passenger airliners, and is building world-leading supercomputers and drugs to fight cancer, Alzheimer's, and other diseases. Chinese researchers' successful cloning of two monkeys sent shockwaves through the scientific community in January.

China leads the world in patents, and one-fifth of the world's R&D spending is taking place there. It is making huge advances across a range of scientific fields. Included are new weapons systems as China projects its strength in the region, especially with its navy around disputed islands in the South China Sea.

All of this illustrates a head-in-the-sand approach by the current U.S. administration, which should be working with China instead of against it. But Trump, as he does with trade, sees technological development as a zero-sum game, where only one side can win while the other side loses.

Right now, with researchers armed with doctorate degrees pouring back into China, it's easy to see who is winning.