Journey to the east as scholars return home.

China targets 2,000 top academics with Thousand Talents plan. Carolynne Wheeler reports

April 30, 2009

After more than two decades in the UK, Shujie Yao is at the height of a career he could only have dreamt of upon leaving China.

After earning a PhD from the University of Manchester, he went on to research fellowships at the University of Oxford, professorships at the universities of Portsmouth and Middlesex, consultancies at the United Nations and the World Bank, and is now head of the contemporary Chinese studies department at the University of Nottingham.

But in common with many Chinese academics overseas, he is weighing up ever more enticing offers to return home, as China intensifies its efforts to draw senior researchers and professors from abroad to bolster the competitiveness of its own institutions.

"I was struggling with the idea of whether I should go back or stay," said Professor Yao, who has decided to remain in Nottingham for now rather than uproot his young family.

He already travels to China several times a year for his work as special chief professor of economics at Jiaotong University in Xi'an.

However, he is able to reel off a list of colleagues and students who have returned permanently, many to prominent positions as departmental heads or university presidents and vice-presidents.

Among the highest-profile returnees from the UK are Zihe Rao, a renowned molecular biophysicist who conducted research at Oxford and is now president of Nankai University in Tianjin; Binglin Zhong, president of Beijing Normal University, who conducted his doctoral studies at Cardiff University; and a former University of Cambridge lecturer, Tianjian Lu, who is now vice-president of research at Jiaotong's School of Aerospace.

"China's economy has grown significantly, but it still lacks top-level international scholars, so this is why it is willing to invest heavily," Professor Yao said. "It offers conditions that are even better than those outside. It's a tremendous opportunity."

Bring back the sea turtles

China's Thousand Talents plan, unveiled in December, aims to attract up to 2,000 top-level academics over the next five to ten years, according to state media reports quoting senior officials in the ruling Communist Party's secretive Central Organisation Department.

The plan offers up to 1 million yuan, about £100,000, to help pay for relocation costs, as well as competitive salaries and funding for research.

While about half of those recruited under the plan are expected to enter the private sector to drive advancements in science and technology, the other half will help leading Chinese universities to compete internationally in terms of research and innovation.

Nearly all of those targeted are haigui - "sea turtles", a homonym for "returnee" in Mandarin - who went overseas to study and stayed there to establish their careers.

Of a reported 96 scientists and 26 entrepreneurs to have arrived in the plan's first round of recruitment, just four are said to be of non-Chinese origin, although 80 hold foreign passports.

An estimated one million Chinese have gone abroad to study since the country began opening up to the West in 1978.

About one-quarter of those eventually returned, although numbers have increased in the past decade: state statistics show 42,000 students came home in 2006 alone, an increase of 21 per cent on the previous year.

New teaching styles

China has unveiled programmes before to lure its "sea turtles" home, but this latest effort comes at a critical juncture, with the global economic crisis threatening both public and private sources of university funding.

As it stands, 38 per cent of educators at Chinese universities are returned scholars.

"They strengthen international co-operation. They raise the level of research at these institutions ... And I think they bring back some new teaching styles, too," said Huiyao Wang, vice-chair of the Beijing-based Western Returned Scholars Association, who has advised the Chinese Government on attracting returnees.

"They have more classroom discussion and debate, instead of traditional lectures and taking notes. Most importantly, they bring back a global perspective, which I think adds a lot of value."

Zhou Zhong, a 31-year-old lecturer at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, is among the recent returnees. In 2005, she took up a teaching post there after five years of doctoral and postdoctoral work at Oxford.

Unlike many of her classmates and friends, Dr Zhong always intended to return to China. But she said others who were previously keen on staying abroad have also been drawn back, largely because the posts on offer were better.

"Many of my friends tried to find jobs in the UK or in America, but they also tried Hong Kong and big cities here in China.

"I think they find more offers here. Indeed, there are more jobs here," she said.

In the UK, this emerging brain drain means universities may have to work harder, particularly during the downturn, to retain Chinese academics.

But there has been an effect on Chinese universities, too. International experience is now so highly prized that young, internationally educated professors find themselves leaping ahead of their locally educated, more senior counterparts.

"Top universities in China have become very harsh to their own graduates. They want young professors with overseas experience," Dr Zhong said.

"Some of my students are very bright, but because they do not yet have international experience, they are denied opportunities."

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