Racism, Democratic Reforms and China's Reverse Brain Drain

The world has been clamoring for China to adopt democratic reforms. That wish will likely come true within a decade due to competitive pressures that leave China with no choice but to move swiftly toward a high level of individual rights and freedoms or begin a downward spiral toward a backward police state like Myanmar or even N. Korea.

China is under pressure to keep raising its national standard of living. To do so it must move aggressively into hi-tech industries. That will require that it not only send students abroad to learn and gain experience, it must entice them to return. So far, of the 1.4 million students who went abroad to study since 1979, only 390,000 have returned, according to China’s statistics bureau.

This ratio wasn’t a cause for concern until recently. China’s rise from abject poverty to mid-level economy was driven by commodity manufacturing that needs few cutting-edge researchers and technologists — just a lot of technicians and technocrats to implement technologies developed elsewhere. If anything, the Chinese who remained overseas were more valuable as business contacts sending manufacturing contracts back home or even as dutiful offspring sending money home. Such technologies as were needed could be gleaned from OEM contracts or reverse-engineered from products sold by foreign manufacturers.

But China’s accession into the WTO with its strict intellectual property protection rules makes reliance on borrowed technologies impractical and costly. At the same time, growing discontent among the majority of Chinese who still live in rural regions underscores the need to keep its economy moving up the global food chain to enable its per capita GDP to keep growing at a 9-10% rate annually.

To this end in 2009 China embarked on a plan to move its lower value-added manufacturing activities out to central and western boonies while forcing businesses located in the coastal regions to move up into hi-tech fields like telecom, computers, biotech, pharmaceuticals and green energy. The major obstacle to this ambition is recruiting the talent and creative energy to power the technological innovations needed to compete against industry leaders in the U.S., Japan, Korea and Germany.

Problem is, not many foreign braniacs will work in China for Chinese companies. The possibility of being imprisoned for indefinite periods at the sovereign’s whim seems an undue risk for most intelligent people who have invested heavily in years of study and experience. Even executives of foreign firms in China have seen the risks of working inside a totalitarian nation like China. Ask Chinese Australian Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu and his three Chinese colleagues who were detained last year on questionable spying charges. So China’s best bet is to recruit back more of the talent that left the homeland to seek opportunities elsewhere. The best sources are Silicon Valley, Boston’s Route 128, Raleigh’s Research Triangle and other U.S. tech centers packed with Chinese talent.

To that end in late 2008 the Chinese government launched the “Thousand Talents Program” with the goal of bringing back from overseas 2,000 top talent “sea turtles” during the next decade. It’s a start. The actual number China will need in the coming decade is probably an order of magnitude higher. But the kinds of successful professionals China must recruit have grown used to life in the U.S., with the sense of security that comes from rights guaranteed by a democratic society that, at least in theory, doesn’t subject people to arbitrary loss of freedom and property rights. The better educated one is, the more one appreciates the value of this fundamental personal security, especially those from a nation whose people have suffered most from its glaring absence. The ability to compete against the U.S. in providing a sense of personal security will ultimately determine whether China succeeds in attracting enough top talent to power its rise to advanced nation status.

One advantage China has had in this regard is the intense racism and mistrust the U.S. has shown toward Asians in general and Chinese in particular. A case in point is Tsien Hsue-Shen, a Chinese rocket engineer. Tsien came to the U.S. in 1935 under the Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship Program and received his education at MIT and CalTech. He served as a graduate student assistant to the founder of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before joining the U.S. Army during WWII. He used his exceptional abilities to advance U.S. ballistic missile guidance design.

As soon as the war ended in Europe Lieutenant Colonel Tsien was sent to Germany to see what could be learned from the scientists at the V-2 rocket facilities. He applied what he distilled from German technology toward a long-range gliding rocket vehicle that was the conceptual predecessor to today’s NASA Space Shuttle. Tsien’s years of service to the U.S. didn’t protect him from becoming the victim of racial persecution during the McCarthy era. After arrest and imprisonment under unfounded suspicion of spying for China, he was confined to his home under around-the-clock surveillance for five years. He was ultimately released under a prisoner-exchange program and returned to China with his family in 1955. There he became the father of China’s highly respected Silkworm missile program.

Had Tsien’s story ended there, it would have served as yet another cautionary tale about America’s periodic anti-Asian hysteria. During the last four decades of his life, Tsien’s life turned into a cautionary tale about the perils of working for China. In 1970 Tsien developed an interest in the unexplored potential of the human body. He formed a research group to test Qigong masters and people with supernormal capabilities and verified the existence of human capabilities unexplained by modern science. In 1980 Tsien defied China’s official position to propose the Human Body Science theory. Between 1983 and 1997 he gave lectures to aerospace researchers and medical researchers relating modern scientific concepts to Human Body Science, Qigong, supernormal capability, Chinese Medicine.

Tsien’s studies fed into the Falun Gong movement which was growing in popularity at the time. In 1999 China’s leader Jiang Zemin became concerned about Falun Gong’s potential to become a dissident force and began a brutal suppression campaign. Jiang himself visited Tsien several times in an effort to win him over to the government’s position. When Tsien refused, his work since 1970 became a target of government suppression. By the time Tsien died in 2009 his four decades of work on Human Body Science had been wiped from public consciousness.

The potential for this kind of arbitrary yet omnipotent government intrusion into private life and work is scary to any thinking person who might otherwise be drawn to the opportunities offered by a nation with unmet needs on such a vast scale. It is only when it begins taking serious steps toward democratic reforms that this fear will be sufficiently allayed to allow it to attract the best and brightest of its own people, as well as those from other nations.