Innovation and China’s Global Emergence

edited by Erik Baark, Bert Hofman, and Jiwei Qian

ISBN: 978-981-325-148-9

published August 2021

Or read this open access web edition

Chapter 5

China’s Talent Challenges Revisited

Cong Cao and Denis Fred Simon


Today, the heightened intensity of international competition essentially boils down to a competition for human resources, or talent. China is no exception. In fact, the China story in the reform and open-door era is essentially a story of talent recruitment and development, deployment and utilisation. It is the contributions of scientists, engineers, other qualified professionals, as well as Chinese who possess business and legal knowledge and skills that have propelled China to the global competitive position that it occupies now. The evolving state of China’s talent pool will continue to shape the country’s future economic and technological trajectory in important ways.

This recognised, China also continues to face some serious challenges regarding its talent situation, just as the country did in the past. This chapter is developed around this theme of talent challenges—past, present and future. These challenges are in turn manifested in the “Qian Xuesen puzzle”: why has China not turned out larger numbers of people with outstanding talent?[1] The chapter starts by revisiting the four propositions regarding China’s talent challenges put forward in our co-authored book published some ten years ago (Simon and Cao 2009) to examine how the key issues have been addressed in recent years. It then assesses various programmes that the Chinese government has launched to attract the return of those with foreign study and advanced research experience. Presumably, a lack of high-end talent has challenged and will continue to challenge the on-going effort to develop China into an innovation-oriented nation and a world leader in science and technology (S&T). The chapter ends with a discussion on what the “Qian Xuesen puzzle” means for China’s overall talent development over the next decade or so.

China’s Multifaceted Talent Challenges

Despite possessing an impressive S&T talent pool and having an extensive human resource pipeline, China continues to face serious talent issues as it seeks to sustain domestic economic growth and promote rapid technological advance. In 2009, we suggested that four factors were responsible for explaining China’s talent challenges in the early twenty-first century (Simon and Cao 2009: 22–56). First, the after-effects of the Cultural Revolution were still being felt; during the ten years between 1966 and 1976, higher education was disrupted and professionals were prosecuted and deprived of the right to carry out their work, thus leading to a dearth of well-educated specialists in all areas. Second, the “brain drain” of talents abroad after China opened its door in the late-1970s constrained the domestic availability of “the best and brightest minds”. Third, the qualitative improvement of the talent pool had been sacrificed amid the quantitative expansion of higher education since the late-1990s, causing various structural mismatches, especially in terms of geographic demand and supply. And finally, China was fast approaching an “aging society”, which would have significant implications for the supply and utilisation of talent over the coming decades.

Some ten years have passed and it certainly is an appropriate time to revisit these propositions to see how things have evolved. First, apparently, the lingering effects of the Cultural Revolution are mostly gone. Almost all of the so-called “worker-peasant-soldier” college students (gong-nong-bing xueyuan) have retired, with only very few who remain active in leadership positions having made up their educational deficiencies through advanced education at home and/or abroad. For example, the former President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Bai Chunli, studied at Peking University during the Cultural Revolution but furthered his studies with a doctorate at the CAS before conducting post-doctoral research at the California Institute of Technology.[2] Moreover, the generation of scientists and professionals receiving higher education during the initial phases of the reform and open-door era is more than coming of age. In fact, a significant number of them have retired or soon will retire. Those who were born in the 1960s or 1970s now occupy many of the key leadership positions in science and technology and the 1980s generation is entering its most productive age.

Second, the “brain drain” challenge still exists, although the situation is not as severe as it was ten years ago. China’s central and local governments and different institutions have launched various returnee-attraction programmes to tackle this challenge. Consequently, China has witnessed the return of a growing number of its scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and other professionals with foreign study and/or work experience. The growing availability of new and better opportunities also has attracted Chinese and non-Chinese experts to China. While the majority of Chinese PhDs still desire to travel abroad, either to make up for the lack of international experience or to meet the requirements for promotion as stipulated by their employers, most plan to pursue professional careers in their homeland. However, among the growing number of returnees are not only the academically competent and experienced “sea turtles” (haigui), who clearly are warmly welcomed, but also “seaweed” (haidai), who struggle professionally because a significant number of them spent only a year or two overseas and did not accumulate much meaningful foreign work experience (Zweig and Han 2010). In recent years, Chinese students have gone overseas at a younger age, some even attending foreign high schools. For example, at the turn of the twenty-first century, 80 per cent of the 60,000 Chinese students in American universities were at the postgraduate level. A decade later, the number of Chinese students in the United States rose to 158,000, but those at the graduate level dropped to below 50 per cent for the first time (48.8 per cent). In the 2017/18 academic year, Chinese students enrolled in American universities reached 373,000, with those at the graduate level accounting for only 36.8 per cent (IIE, various years). The prospects for members of the group who start their undergraduate studies abroad to become “sea treasure” (haibei), who are generally better prepared for global success, are uncertain as changes in the domestic environment and political tensions between China and the US and other Western countries could re-orient or re-shape their career planning and mobility. The new “brain drain” situation is discussed later in the chapter.

Third, China still faces a demonstrable mismatch challenge. Some aspects of this challenge are a result of the rapid expansion of higher education in China in the late 1990s as human capital accumulation just intrinsically takes a long time, first to expand the quantity then to upgrade the quality. For one thing, China simply did not have enough qualified faculty to teach the growing number of new university entrants. But other aspects have been caused by a variety of critical structural problems, which are difficult to solve, and therefore this overall challenge will not be mitigated any time soon. For example, graduates strongly prefer to work in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, often causing geographical mismatches. There are also mismatches between supply and demand, between knowledge acquired through education and skills required by jobs, and between the types of positions to be filled and the availability of quality and capable talent to fill the positions.

Finally, the “aging society” challenge is only getting more serious. In our book, we used data from the Population Division under the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and China’s National Bureau of Statistics to predict a crossover of the group attending colleges (18 to 22 year olds) and the group approaching retirement (55 to 60 year olds) between 2015 and 2017, meaning that there would be more retiring S&T personnel than college-bound young people (Simon and Cao 2009: 266−68). In recent years, the number of students sitting for national college entrance examinations (gaokao) has been declining. While some of this decline may derive from the fact that more students are preparing to study abroad and are thus not taking gaokao, the diminishing pool of college-age youngsters indicates that the aging effect may have kicked in earlier than expected. The government’s recent loosening of the one-child policy—from allowing families to have a second child if both parents were an only child, to if one parent was an only child, and to allowing all families to have two children—is probably too late to address current problems. Indeed, this corresponds with the Chinese saying, “it takes ten years to grow a tree but one hundred years to educate/nurture a person” (shinian shumu, bainian shuren). It definitely will take time and perhaps prove impossible for China to reverse the trend of becoming a rapidly aging society. The implications of the aging population in China vis-à-vis its ambition to become an innovation-oriented nation could be quite negative, though advances in technologies such as artificial intelligence will likely alter the degree of severity in some areas.

There also are particular areas of deficiency, such as lack of creativity, constraints on initiative-taking behaviour and a continued “cultural” aversion to risk-taking. There remains low tolerance for failure to support technological entrepreneurship and innovation, as well as a lack of critical “soft skills”, including but not limited to management and communications. Finally, graduates still lack ample international exposure and cross-cultural awareness. Improvements in these key areas have been slow to materialise and the existing deficiencies within the education system will take time to repair. Even among those who have been educated abroad, many actually have had more of a “Chinese experience” at an overseas university and have not embraced much in the way of foreign cultures and values.

More fundamentally, lingering challenges seem to point to the relevance of a remark made by Qian Xuesen, a returnee from the United States in the mid-1950s and one of the most important contributors to China’s missile and space programme (Cao 2014). In 2005, Qian told then visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that one important reason that China has not produced outstanding talent is that the nation does not have even one university that genuinely follows the model of nurturing scientific and creative talent and encouraging unique innovation. Qian made his remark towards the end of his life and did not elaborate on what he meant by his ideal model for universities, thus leaving much room for interpretation, speculation and even debate. Nonetheless, it is indeed a key challenge for China to develop ways to nurture innovative and creative talent.

Is a “Brain Drain” Still Looming?

The “brain drain” challenge is neither a China specific nor a recent phenomenon. The Royal Society of London coined the term in the 1960s to describe the exodus of professionals from the United Kingdom to North America, especially the United States. The situation has been spread to different countries, especially developing countries across Asia and other parts of the globe. Thereafter, economists have come up with different theories or strategies for ameliorating, if not completely getting rid of, the phenomenon. Jagdish Bhagwati (1976) proposed taxing the “brain drain”. For Robert Lucas (2001), given the nature of international networks, through remittances and capital flows as well as the links between international trade, migration and technology transfers, immigrants from less developed countries help to stimulate the dynamics of economic growth and technological catch-up in their home countries so as to have the effects of “brain gain”.

More recently, AnnaLee Saxenian, an economic geographer, has championed a theory of “brain circulation” in which migrants from India and China who studied in the US, and then worked in Silicon Valley and other high-tech areas, frequently brought technology and experience back to their home countries (1999). She has further developed a “new brain circulation” concept, whereby migrants not only bring home technology and experience, but also engage in entrepreneurial activities and list overseas-based start-ups, which do business in their home countries. With these new ventures having both overseas and home bases, circulation continues (Saxenian 2006). The collaborative knowledge networks forged by these types of “bi-cultural” and “multi-cultural” individuals have become the new vehicles for advancing global innovation as well.

The theoretical underpinnings described here have stimulated the Chinese government and organisations to take action to turn China’s “brain drain” into a “brain gain” or at least a “brain circulation”. Also, having realised that the talent shortage could have a significant negative impact on China’s near-to-medium term growth and even jeopardise China’s development transition, especially in terms of the development of innovative and technology-intensive sectors, China has initiated various programmes to proactively attract, retain and nurture talents, especially those at the high-end.

Efforts were first introduced in the early 1990s (Cao 2008). In 1994, the CAS rolled out a One Hundred Talents Program, targeting overseas Chinese talents, while the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) started to provide early returnees, as well as domestic scientists, with the National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scientists (Cao and Suttmeier 2001). In 1998, with the substantial contribution from Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong business tycoon, the Ministry of Education (MOE) set up a Cheung Kong Scholars Program, aimed at awarding returned scholars and attracting the return of overseas talent (Li and Tang 2019). But these programmes did not achieve the desired “brain gain”; at best, they created an academic “brain circulation”. Among structural and cultural impediments, political constraints, prevailing income disparities and differing living conditions between China and developed countries, along with schooling issues for children and spousal employment challenges have discouraged overseas Chinese scholars and students from seriously considering pursuit of a long-term career in China. Of course, the lack of an adequate environment conducive to innovation was implied in the “Qian Xuesen puzzle”.

In December 2008, to further address the “brain drain” challenge and also take advantage of the global financial crisis that cost some ethnic Chinese scientists, researchers and professionals their jobs abroad, China’s Central Leading Group for Coordinating Talent Work, under the Department of Organization of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, launched an Attracting Overseas High-End Talent Program, also known as the Thousand Talents Program. Pledging to attract some 2,000 expatriate Chinese scholars to their homeland within five to ten years, the programme initially targeted full professors at well-known foreign institutions of learning, experienced corporate executives and entrepreneurs with core technologies under 55 years of age to support leapfrogging China’s scientific research, high-tech entrepreneurship and economic development. In return for their permanent return and services, the central government offered a resettlement subsidy of RMB1 million tax free and a significant amount of funding for research or entrepreneurship, while local governments and employers matched these incentives with additional funding, housing benefits and a salary close to the returnees’ overseas level (Simon and Cao 2011).

The Thousand Talents Program did not occur in isolation from other key reforms and new initiatives in the R&D system. During this period, China launched its 15-year Medium-to-Long Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology (2006–20) along with a series of structural reforms regarding S&T policy to help advance China’s attempts to become a serious player in international S&T affairs. In addition, during this same period, China began to increase its annual R&D expenditures substantially, with the goal of having its R&D expenditure reach 2.5 per cent of its growing GDP by the year 2020 (Appelbaum et al. 2018). At a time when R&D monies were becoming more constrained in the US and elsewhere, the availability of ample funding in China seemed to provide a good enticement for many aspiring S&T personnel.

The Thousand Talents Program attracted several very prominent academics to come back to China. They included Wang Xiaodong, the first US-bound mainland Chinese student in the open-door era who was elected as a member of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) at age 41 and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; Shi Yigong, a chaired professor and also an HHMI investigator at Princeton University who is presently President of the new Westlake University in Hangzhou; and most recently, Xie Xiaoliang, the first mainland Chinese in the open-door era to hold a tenured full professorship at Harvard University, who is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the NAS. There are many other such scholars from China who were appointed to the world’s leading institutions of learning (see, for example, LaFraniere 2010). However, quite a significant number of awardees have been unable or unwilling to return to China permanently for various reasons, which ran counter to the core objectives and the initial goals of the programme (Wang 2011; Zweig and Wang 2013; Zweig, Kang and Wang 2020). Therefore, the government had to add a component for those who wanted to commit to only a couple of months of part-time work. Given the complicated nature of these part-time arrangements, the government never has made the entire list of Thousand Talents Program awardees public because revealing the broad array of special arrangements would likely cause embarrassment and problems to some of the part-timers. In 2019, the special incentives and provisions used to attract people into the Program, Chinese and foreign, became a major political issue in the US as a number of scholars began to be viewed with suspicion by the FBI due to intellectual property rights protection and related national security concerns (discussed later in the chapter).

In December 2010, the Central Leading Group for Coordinating Talent Work approved the addition of a component for emerging young scholars, the Young Thousand Talents Program, to the Thousand Talents Program. Administered by the NSFC, the Program aimed at attracting some 400 promising young talents annually between 2011 and 2015 from overseas, and turning them into innovative leaders in academia or high-tech entrepreneurship with moral character, outstanding professional ability and comprehensive quality. Meanwhile, the NSFC and MOE also added components to their respective programmes for emerging outstanding young scholars in 2012 and 2015 (Table 5.1 provides the number of returnees who benefitted from the various programmes).

Table 5.1: China’s Talent-Attracting Programmes and the Number of Returnees Benefited, 1994–2018


Agency in charge

Year initiated

Total number affected

Hundred Talents Program




National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scholars




Chunhui Program




Cheung Kong Scholar Program




111 Program




Thousand Talents Program




Young Thousand Talents Program




Science Fund for Emerging Distinguished Young Scholars




Ten Thousand Talents Program




New Hundred Talents Program




Young Cheung Kong Scholar Program




Notes: CAS – Chinese Academy of Sciences; NSFC – National Natural Science Foundation of China; MOE – Ministry of Education; SAFEA – State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs; CLGCTW – Central Leading Group for Coordinating Talent Work.

Source: Cao et al. 2020.

Each of the programmes targets different age groups of returnees, mostly the young or middle-aged. These titles—endowed professorship and grantees—carry significant academic honours in the Chinese context. The NSFC programmes provide funding for research, and their grantees are likely supplemented with a salary from the institutions; while non-NSFC programmes do not provide money for research, the awardees likely receiving matching funds from local governments and institutions for research. Chinese universities and research institutes compete fiercely for titled scientists as their numbers are valued in the official institutional rankings in China.

Alongside the return of some of the leading scientists and scholars from abroad has been an increase in the overall return of Chinese students, driven by a combination of both domestic pull and international push factors. By 2018, of the 5.86 million Chinese studying abroad during the reform and open-door era, 3.65 million had returned to China, registering an overall rate of return of 62.3 per cent. In 2017, 608,000 Chinese went abroad as students, and 481,000 returned upon finishing their overseas studies, with a rate of return in the year of 79.1 per cent. Looking at these statistics, one could conclude that China is no longer experiencing a “brain drain”.[3]

However, several sources point to critical questions about the overall quality of the returnees, including those returning under the various programmes mentioned above. Of some 470,000 returnees seeking certification for their foreign educational credentials between 2008 and 2014 at the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange, under the Ministry of Education (2016: 35–91), 62.56 per cent had a master’s degree, 29.8 per cent had a bachelor’s degree, and only 6.2 per cent had a doctorate. The 29,341 doctorate-holding returnees received their degrees from more than 2,000 institutions in 67 countries in various disciplines (Tables 5.2 and 5.3).

Table 5.2: Chinese Returnees Who Sought Certification for Their Foreign PhD Degrees, 2008–14








































Source: Chinese Service Centre for Scholarly Exchange 2016.

Specifically, the top eleven schools awarding 12.1 per cent of the doctorates included universities from Singapore (National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University), Japan (Tokyo, Kyushu, Tohoku, Nagoya, Hokudai, Kyoto, and Tsukuba) and the UK (Nottingham and Manchester). Top American universities whose graduates had sought their degree certification included the Illinois Institute of Technology, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Southern California, Columbia University, University of Illinois Chicago, Northeastern University, Missouri State University, Ohio State University, Boston University and the University of Maryland College Park; but most of their graduates were in master’s programmes and only a small number were awarded PhDs.

Table 5.3: Disciplines in which Chinese Returnees Received Their Foreign PhD Degrees, 2008–14






















Management Science












Source: Chinese Service Centre for Scholarly Exchange 2016.

Meanwhile, between 2006 and 2016, a total of 50,439 Chinese nationals received PhD degrees from American universities (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics 2018: Table 26).[4] In 2015, 22 per cent of the 464,000 foreign born science and engineering (S&E) doctorate holders in the US were Chinese. Between 2012 and 2015, the vast majority of the S&E doctorate recipients in the US from China (83 per cent) reported plans to stay in the US, and approximately half of these individuals reported accepting firm offers for employment or postdoc research in the US. By country of citizenship at the time of degree conferment, China, the country that was the source of more S&E doctorate recipients than any other foreign country, had the highest 5- and 10-year stay rates. For the Chinese who received their doctorates in 2005, the 10-year stay rate was 90 per cent; for those receiving their American doctorates in 2010, the 5-year stay rate was 85 per cent, while the 5-year and 10-year stay rates for all the S&E Chinese PhDs from the US were both 70 per cent in 2015 (US National Science Board 2018: 3–138).[5]

Figure 5.1: Share of High-impact Publications (top 10%, fracFWCI) by Returnees above Chinese Average; for Overseas Chinese it is Much Higher

Figure 5.1:	Share of High-impact Publications (top 10%, fracFWCI) by Returnees above Chinese Average

Notes: fracFWCI – fractional field-weighted citation impact.

CHN – Publications by China-based scientists with only China publication experience; USA->CHN – Publications by those who first published in the US and then in China; E28->CHN – Publications by those who first published in the 28 European Union states and then in China; All->CHN – Publications by all those who first published outside China and then in China; CHN->USA - Publications by those who first published in China and then in the US; CHN->E28 – Publications by those who first published in China and then in the 28 European Union states.

Source: Cao et al. 2020

Nevertheless, returnees, along with the overseas Chinese scholars, have contributed to the Chinese S&T system. By tracing the addresses of the authors with publication records in China, the United States, and the 28 member states of the European Union, Cao and his collaborators found that in recent years over 12 per cent of mainland China’s total number of publications were published by scientists with overseas experience. The share of high-impact publications by these scientists is considerably higher than that of their colleagues who remained in China throughout their scientific careers, as might be expected. Moreover, the impact of publications by overseas Chinese is higher than those of researchers in China who have no overseas experience (Figure 5.1). This could be possibly interpreted as showing that the quality of output from China-based scholars still needed to improve and catch up with that of other scholars who first published in China but later moved abroad. However, more published Chinese researchers moved to the US, Europe and other developed countries over the study period (Figure 5.2), thus also suggesting that China may not yet be able to attract or retain its best scientists (Cao et al. 2020). Of course, many factors—not just talent—influence the quality and impact of publications. But most important is the quality of China’s research environment, which though improving, may still be less conducive to the high-impact science that China would like to produce (Cao 2008).

Figure 5.2: Numbers of Mobile Chinese Scientists in China, the EU and US

Notes: China authors in the USA – Authors who first published in China and then in the US; China authors in EU – Authors who first published in China and then in the EU; US authors in China – Authors who first published in the US and then in China; EU authors in China – Authors who first published in China and then in the EU.

Source: Cao et al. 2020.

Indeed, the deference shown to S&T talent has grown considerably. The Chinese R&D system no longer suffers from inadequate funding and an antiquated infrastructure. In addition, as suggested, there is now an ample number of high-quality graduates being produced by PRC universities in S&T at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The situation, overall, continues to improve, albeit at a much slower pace than desired by the scientific and political leadership. The key questions revolve around the difficulties associated with bringing what sociologist Talcott Parsons called “an achievement-oriented culture” (1951), or what sociologist Robert K. Merton called “universalism” (1942) into existence as the guiding philosophy for evaluation, promotion and support of talent. Again, the “Qian Xuesen puzzle” is relevant.

One other factor that has somewhat changed the situation has been the emergence of several high calibre joint venture universities in China such as Duke Kunshan University and the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, with which both authors have been affiliated. A significant number of ethnic Chinese has found it appealing to secure full-time employment at these types of institution because they believe there is an overriding commitment to academic freedom that is not yet present at most PRC universities. These new institutions also do not suffer from some of the legacy issues such as seniority and excessive bureaucracy that are still present in a traditional Chinese academic environment. Moreover, as these younger institutions build up their own research capabilities, local authorities have exhibited a strong commitment to support the recruitment of a new cadre of scientists and engineers whose work might help support local economic goals and objectives. It remains to be seen whether the environment nurtured at such institutions will eventually proliferate beyond their campuses.

The Impacts of Sino–US Tensions on Chinese Talent

Since the late 1970s, China has established strong collaborative and cooperative relations in science, technology and education with all the developed countries. Such relationships have helped enormously in advancing China’s S&T enterprise. The Sino–US collaboration in S&T has been one of the most comprehensive, to which Chinese scientists have contributed significant efforts and from which Chinese scientists have benefitted enormously. Under the administration of then President Donald Trump, the tensions between the two countries escalated and China was labelled an economic threat and “strategic rival”. There was the possibility that much of the collaboration and cooperation would be reduced if not discontinued. Unless bilateral relations greatly and swiftly improve under President Joe Biden, a real slow down is likely as the Chinese scientists involved in such collaboration and cooperation will find it more and more difficult to find willing partners on the US side (Suttmeier 2020). The irony, of course, is that just as the US-China relationship is shifting from one of asymmetry to greater parity, the US seems to want to disengage precisely when the idea of “mutual benefit” has potentially acquired some real meaning.

The national security concerns from both countries have generated adverse consequences already. For example, the US government has turned down the visa requests of a number of Chinese scientists desiring to visit the US or attend international conferences there, and has even denied or revoked visas to Chinese social scientists working on Sino–US relations, the South China Sea and cyber security, over fears of spying. For the same national security reasons, the Chinese government has likewise rejected the visas of some American scholars. The growing level of uncertainty engendered in this current period of political name-calling has produced anxieties about new collaborations on both sides of the Pacific.

Under the then Trump administration, rising domestic political pressure forced the Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), among others, to start investigating whether ethnic Chinese working at American institutions of learning and within the high-tech sector are illegally leaking technology and knowhow to China. China’s returnee talent-attraction programmes, especially the high-profile Thousand Talents Program, aimed at recruiting high-end talent globally and from the US in particular, have caused further suspicion among American politicians and science administrators. In response, the Program’s organiser stopped publicising recruits to it and ordered Chinese organisations to take the information of the recruits offline for fear that it would damage their careers elsewhere, especially in the US. In fear of losing US government funding, some US universities have been forced to withdraw their Chinese students’ participation.

Most recently, after requests by the NIH, the MD Anderson Center at the University of Texas ousted three of the five scientists suspected of working with China without proper disclosure and authorisation. The Center also suspended at least one more scientist. All of these scientists are ethnic Chinese (Hvistendahl 2019). The Baylor College of Medicine, also in Texas, carried out an audit of the foreign affiliations of every faculty member with current NIH funding, numbering roughly 500 of its 3,500 scientists. Preliminary investigations have found that three ethnic Chinese scientists failed to disclose their concurrent appointments at Chinese universities. Baylor did not discipline them, but corrected the record with the NIH (Mervis 2019a). Overall, a year-long investigation by the NIH identified 180 scientists at more than 60 US research institutions which the NIH believes have violated the confidentiality of its peer review system or failed to disclose financial ties to foreign organisations (Mervis 2019b). Meanwhile, the NSF revealed that all but two of the 16 to 20 cases investigated for violating rules on the disclosure of foreign ties involved ties to China, although a majority of the scientists are US citizens and are not ethnically Chinese (Silver 2020). Those who left their positions in the US soon secured decent positions in China. For example, Xifeng Wu was Director of the Center for Public Health and Translational Genomics and the Betty B. Marcus Chair in Cancer Prevention at the MD Anderson Center until she was forced to resign in January 2019. Two months later, she became Dean of the School of Public Health at Zhejiang University.

It remains to be seen how other American universities and government agencies will deal with similar cases. Such a hostile environment may lead to a large exodus of Chinese-origin scientists, including part-timers of the Thousand Talents Program, from the US. As noted, every year over the last decade or so, American universities have graduated 4,000 to 5,000 Chinese PhDs, of whom about 90 per cent have expressed intentions to stay upon receiving their degrees; at least 70 per cent remained in the US five to ten years later. This occurred amid an overall increasing return of Chinese from overseas, as mentioned. The current hysteria is highly reminiscent of the McCarthyism in the 1950s and carries with it strong “racist” overtones. In the 1950s, a vociferous campaign against alleged communists in the US government, universities and other organisations drove Qian Xuesen, the famous rocket scientist at the California Institute of Technology, back to China where he eventually helped develop the PRC’s strategic weapons programme (Chang 1996).

Meanwhile, as noted, over 363,000 Chinese nationals are currently enrolled at different levels of education in the US. Since the summer of 2018, Chinese students in the American programmes of robotics, aviation, engineering and high-tech manufacturing, among other sensitive fields, have faced tighter scrutiny in the visa application and renewal process. In May 2020, the Trump Administration decided to ban graduate students from seven military-affiliated Chinese universities from pursuing further education in the US, impacting about 3,000 to 4,000 Chinese students (Redden 2020).[6] Most of these visiting scholars and students did not actually break any laws or commit any crimes; the few who had obscured their affiliations were cited for visa fraud, but nothing else of a more nefarious nature.

Arising from such developments, on 3 June 2019, China’s Ministry of Education held a press conference during which an MOE official pointed out that the restrictions on visas issued to Chinese students had affected Chinese students’ and scholars’ completion of their studies in the US, and warned them to assess the risk and prepare for worst case scenarios (China State Council Information Office 2019). Indeed, continued tensions between the US and China may further decrease the number of Chinese students pursuing studies in the US, thus damaging not only the American education and science systems that depend upon Chinese students for tuition and research staffing, but also the academic exchanges between the two countries and the development of Chinese talent, some of whom will eventually return to China. It also remains to be seen whether the decoupling from the US will adversely affect the pace and scope of China’s S&T upgrading. Again, the irony of this situation is that education and S&T cooperation were once seen as the bedrock of the bilateral relationship, allowing the two countries to continue to engage even in times of political difficulties between Beijing and Washington, DC. However, these once “neutral” areas are now the source of some of the most intense conflicts and disagreements.

The level of US concern is most clearly reflected in two documents issued by the US government in March 2018 and November 2019. In the 2018 document entitled China: The Risk to Academia, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI 2018: 1) highlighted the belief that among the 1.4 million international students and scholars enrolled at US institutions of higher education, there were state-directed actors who “seek to illicitly or illegitimately acquire US academic research and information to advance their scientific, economic, and military development goals”. The document goes on to state that “the Chinese government [poses] a particular threat to US academia for a variety of reasons”. The FBI suggested that these reasons include: China does not play by the rules of academic integrity; the Chinese government sponsors economic espionage and some Chinese scholars and students are being employed as “non-traditional collectors of intellectual property”. Finally, the report indicated that “the Chinese government uses a ‘whole-of-society approach’ to advance its economic development, achieve generational advances in research and development, and save money” (FBI 2018: 5).

In the November 2019 report, Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise: China’s Talent Recruitment Plans, China is accused of operating a series of surreptitious programmes designed to acquire American know-how by illegal or illicit means. Sponsored by the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (2019), it specifically cited the Thousand Talents Program as a kind of “trojan horse” whereby US intellectual property derived from US government-funded research is being leaked into Chinese hands and exploited to advance Beijing’s technological aspirations. Published in the midst of the unresolved, so-called “US-China trade war” and the dramatic demonstrations occurring in Hong Kong during the fall of 2019, the report further undermined the ability of the two countries to proceed with not only the existing government-to-government programmes, but also many people-to-people, non-governmental forms of cooperation involving universities, research institutes and think tanks. Many US universities received substantial funding from the NIH, DOD and the Department of Energy, and are unwilling to jeopardise this important funding to cooperate with new or existing Chinese counterparts. Obviously, both reports aim to provide a rationale for cutting China’s technological and talent ties with the US. Unfortunately, the situation in the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak has further complicated matters, and additional accusations have flown across the Pacific, leading to a further deterioration in the Sino–US S&T and education relationship.

Thinking Outside the Box?

Putting these international considerations aside for the moment, as suggested earlier, a domestic environment conducive to and sustainable for turning out qualified talent is critical for continuous economic progress. However, the key question remains whether China can become an innovation-oriented nation without becoming more open to different ways of thinking and creating a different type of culture within its research environment. This is more than a philosophical question. While innovation has been elevated to a very high status in China, and on the surface Chinese researchers and entrepreneurs are encouraged to think outside the box, equally important are the other ingredients of a true innovation culture, namely, autonomy, free access to the flow of information and especially dissent, both scientific and political, which at present are not adequately applauded or tolerated. Indeed, there is an international consensus that tolerance is as critical as talent and technology in driving creativity and growth (Florida 2002).

This leads to our thoughts on the “Qian Xuesen puzzle”, alluded to above. No one knows exactly what Qian’s remark meant. However, given his thorough understanding of China’s education and research system from his vantage point, as well as his formative personal and professional life experience in the US—he had studied and worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology for 20 years before being expelled in the mid-1950s amid the McCarthyism zeal—Qian Xuesen was likely emphasising the importance of such values as independent thinking, tolerance of dissent and freedom of inquiry.

Indeed, answers to Qian’s puzzle may have significant implications for China’s goal to become an innovation-oriented nation amid the inter-nationalisation of China’s human resources. Globalisation has brought China various practical benefits and advantages. However, greatness in terms of science and innovation is not taken for granted. The development of a high-quality talent pool is relatively easy to attain in technical terms. The most difficult and important part to the Qian puzzle is to nurture independent thinking and freedom of inquiry; its widespread absence in China has limited the pool of academic talent and stultified imagination and innovation. The gaokao testing culture makes rote memorisation, rather than critical thinking, much more valued. Therefore, to make China’s talent pool more responsive to an increasingly challenging global environment, the state needs to go beyond mere pragmatism, to treasure and uphold such universal values underlying science and innovation. The presence of joint venture universities, with their more open academic culture, might hold one of the keys to helping China break through some of the existing systemic constraints. Joint venture universities could serve as mechanisms to diffuse critical thinking and enhance risk-taking inside the Chinese education world. Only by driving ahead in terms of greater openness and critical thinking will China be able to turn out truly world-class graduates from world class universities with majors in world-class disciplines and have its talent leapfrog to the international frontiers of research, as its scientific and political leadership has envisioned. The decision to bring in the Sino–foreign joint venture universities represents a step in the right direction, but only if these unique types of institution are allowed to engage in pedagogical practices that truly nurture critical thinking, risk taking and independent debate.

The bottom line is that allowing “blooming and contending” are more critical than purely worshiping innovation as a new “religion”.[7] If the former are not allowed to prosper, the potential success of China’s innovation strategy will run into talent-related system-wide roadblocks. It is in this vein that China’s innovation pursuits may be in conflict with the government’s other goals, namely to maintain social stability and construct a harmonious society, as innovation often requires swimming against the tide rather than simply going with the flow.


This chapter has discussed various issues surrounding China’s evolving talent challenges. By revisiting the four decade-old propositions put forward in our previous research on Chinese talent, this chapter concludes that the Cultural Revolution challenge no longer exists, while the challenges in the other three areas—the “brain drain,” various structure-related mismatches and the aging society—are still having an appreciable impact, although the level of severity varies. Specifically, in recent years there has been a larger number of returnees among its overseas educated students and scholars, thus seemingly achieving some sort of “brain gain” and “brain circulation”, thanks to a booming economy that has created exciting new opportunities for scholars and entrepreneurs. Added to this is the attention that the leadership has been paying to science, technology and innovation. Reforms continue to be introduced into the S&T sector, though they are often under tighter political controls. Therefore, it is not surprising that the efforts that the government and related organisations have made in attracting high-end talent from overseas have met with some success. However, not only is the quality of the returnees not completely satisfactory, the various talent-attracting programmes that have been launched may be merely a temporary solution to addressing China’s critical talent challenges.

The tensions between China and the United States have not only been prolonged, but have also extended from the trade area to research and talent. On the one hand, these tensions have already cut off some of China’s access to the most advanced and sophisticated technology because Chinese students are sometimes banned from studying these subjects in American universities, and Chinese scholars may lose the opportunity, at least temporarily, to collaborate with their American counterparts. This could be particularly damaging in fields such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, fields in which China hopes to play a leading role on a global scale. On the other hand, the deepening tensions also could drive some of the more established Chinese-American scholars out of the US. While it is too early to tell whether the current political conditions will cause some ethnic Chinese to return to China, it does remain a distinct possibility. Indeed, this complex reality poses a real dilemma for China, which seems to have re-asserted its commitment to global engagement in order to maintain access to the frontiers of research and education.

While it is difficult to assess whether China’s talent-attracting policies have truly provided more than a formal/superficial approach to solve the underlying talent issues, we would argue that the key to meeting China’s ultimate talent challenges lies in answering the “Qian Xuesen puzzle”. What Qian meant to suggest may actually be that there needs to be more importance attached to such values as independent thinking, tolerance of dissent and freedom of inquiry; these factors are essential for growing and nurturing truly innovative talent. If this is the case, the recent increases in investment in S&T and education, while obviously necessary, are not sufficient to enable China to meet its goals. China needs to continue not only improving and making its environment more conducive to creative expression, innovative thinking and talent development but also reducing the shocks caused by “structured uncertainty” across its system (Breznitz and Murphree 2011).


Research for this paper was partially supported by a grant from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (#71774091). We also benefitted from comments and suggestions made by participants during presentations at Duke Kunshan University, the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the East Asian Institute (EAI) at the National University of Singapore and Nottingham University Business School.


[1] Qian Xuesen (1911–2009) was a US-trained and based rocket scientist who returned to China in 1955 to lead China’s missile and space programme.

[2] Bai stepped down as CAS President in November 2020.

[3] The data on the overall stock and flow of Chinese students overseas and the return rate is from China’s Ministry of Education (2019) and National Bureau of Statistics (2018), Table 21-10 Statistics on Postgraduates and Students Studying Abroad, respectively.

[4] Table 26 is entitled, “Doctorates Awarded for 10 Largest Countries of Origin of Temporary Visa Holders Earning Doctorates at US Colleges and Universities, by Country or Economy of Citizenship and Field: 2006–16”.

[5] For a particular graduating cohort of foreign-born non-citizen S&E doctorate recipients, the proportion who report living in the US for a given number of years after receiving their degrees is an indicator of the cohort’s long-term stay rate.

[6] These seven universities are Northwestern Polytechnical University, Harbin Engineering University, Harbin Institute of Technology, Beihang University (formerly known as Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics), Beijing Institute of Technology, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, and Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, directed by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

[7] “Blooming and contending” is from what Mao Zedong said in the mid-1950s, “let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”, to stimulate the activities of scientists, artists and other intellectuals to participate in socialist construction.


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