Lure of the West drains China of best and brightest Fraction of top students have returned from abroad

October 23, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- In a dormitory for young professors at a technical university here, a 29-year-old social science teacher offers a Chinese saying to explain why more than half his well-educated colleagues want to leave China.

"Chinese man overseas is a dragon; in his own country, he is a worthless insect," he says. "So we say, as long as you breathe, you must strive to go overseas."

And strive they do -- against long odds and seemingly endless hurdles.

Despite the difficulties, enough of China's best and brightest have already gone that the world's largest nation is becoming desperately short of trained talent to meet the increasing demands of its rapid development.

The brain drain to more developed nations is of growing official concern here for both pragmatic and political reasons.

"It speaks directly to the total failure of this regime," said a Chinese scientist with two of his three children now studying overseas.

Since China's opening to the West in the late 1970s, an estimated 200,000 Chinese students have gone abroad to study. Only a quarter have returned so far.

More than 50,000 of these students have gone to Japan. About 40,000 are in the United States, where they make up the largest bloc of foreign students.

And despite new Chinese rules forcing new graduates to wait five years before going overseas, about 10,000 more Chinese students, two-thirds privately sponsored, are coming to the United States every year.

These numbers may not seem large for a nation of more than 1.1 billion people. But in the last decade, Chinese universities only have granted about 200,000 advanced academic degrees. So the loss of talent, according to Chinese reports, has had profound effects.

Graduate schools are plagued by decreasing numbers of qualified applicants, declining standards and aging teaching staffs.

In Beijing this year, the official demand for new workers in some specialties was 10 times the available pool of graduates.

China sent 915 of its top physics students to the United States between 1982 and 1986; fewer than 50 had returned by last spring.

Of more than 7,300 scholars sent abroad in the last 12 years by the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, only about half have come back. A third or more of the musicians and other artists in major symphonies and dance troupes in Beijing and Shanghai are overseas.

"Research labs are short of essential personnel," Hou Xianglin, a state petroleum company official, wrote in a government report earlier this year.

"The purpose in sending people abroad to study is to serve the nation. If they wait for economic construction to be completed before they return, it will be too late."

Many factors drive the exodus. Chinese academic salaries, about $35 a month for young professors, are often less than factory workers' pay. Many young teachers, even after 10 years of marriage, still live in cramped dorms.

China spends less than 1 percent of its gross national product on scientific research, compared with 3 percent in some developed nations -- resulting in a lack of basic research equipment.

A national survey last year showed that only 4 percent of Chinese scientists feel "fully stretched professionally" and that almost 60 percent believe that about half their efforts were wasted.

"There are just more opportunities overseas," said the social science teacher.

"In China, today's sun is the same as yesterday's, and it will not be much different tomorrow. The West represents challenge. Your fate is not decided for you."

Authorities here have recently stepped up political controls at colleges, a drive likely to increase the fever to go abroad.

At the same time, officials are trying to lure Chinese students back home with offers of higher ranks, salaries and research budgets, new apartments and reports of how inspired returnees are by China's progress. Papers run letters purported to be from students abroad, confessing homesickness.

Officially, China still encourages overseas study -- as the potential national benefits are so great -- but it appears to be trying to slow the outward flow with attacks on the allure of things foreign, intermarriage with foreigners and the more brutal aspects of life in the West.

A current example is the serialization in a Beijing newspaper of a novel, "Beijingers in New York," which begins with the theft of a Chinese couple's luggage and continues through their daughter's murder.

The campaign does not seem to have worked. "The hardships overseas are the hardships of freedom," said a 29-year-old math teacher. "Here, the bitterness is not of your own choosing. You do not even know what it means."

What it means for those who want to leave -- even the most qualified -- is a hard road, traveled for years fed only by slim hope.

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