China’s people have been studying overseas for more than 150 years, but the number staying in the West rose steadily after China introduced its reform and opening-up policy in 1978. This trend has reversed somewhat in the twenty-first century, as returnees are drawn back mainly by China’s booming economy. The brain drain of high-end talent continues to be a problem, however, which China must address to secure its future.

Studying overseas (liúxué 留学) is not a new phenomenon in China. The reform and opening-up policy initiated in the late 1970s, however, along with the global expansion of China’s science and technology (S&T) and educational exchanges, together have introduced a broad array of new, substantial opportunities for study abroad through both government sponsorship and—increasingly—private channels. Overseas study is significant for China not only because of the large number of students and scholars abroad (liúxuéshēng 留学生), but also because of the critical role played by those who return after finishing their studies. The returnees (hǎiguī 海归), especially the ones who have come back recently to take advantage of a booming economy and the government’s favorable policies toward them, are strategically important to China’s becoming a global economic and technological power (and to some extent to its political evolution). Although “brain circulation”—a reference to ethnic Chinese scientists and professionals abroad helping their country by acting as information conduits and partners in academic collaborations and new business ventures—has benefited China, getting its exchange students and educated professionals to return home is crucial to its future.

Nonetheless, a significant number of Chinese scholars and students living in the West have been reluctant, if not unwilling, to return home. Not only has China unequivocally suffered from a “brain drain” in terms of the absolute number of non-returnees, but more problematically, the bulk of those not returning are the best and the brightest. This situation hampers the ability of the Chinese government to promote more and higher level innovation by denying the country valuable, badly needed talent. There also are indications that more students and professionals are getting ready to leave because they think they’ll have a better life and a brighter career abroad. The challenge for China is to attract this highly qualified level of talent, especially academics, back from abroad so as to realize a meaningful “brain gain.”

A History Abroad

Chinese study abroad dates back to 1847, when Rong Hong 容闳 (known in the West as Yung Wing) became one of the first foreign-bound Chinese students (Rong returned in 1854 after receiving his bachelor’s degree from Yale University). At the turn of the twentieth century, students who went to Europe, Japan, and the United States mainly studied the humanities, in preparation for social and political leadership positions. Upon returning, they became elites in various arenas and exerted a significant impact on the country, some as pioneers and powerful forces in political activities. Returnees also participated in the May Fourth Movement 五四运动 of 1919, actively advocating the Enlightenment ideas of science and democracy.

Overseas study reached its first peak during the Republican era 民国时期 (1911/12–1949), when Chinese supported by the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Fund (a scholarship fund established by Theodore Roosevelt from Boxer Rebellion reparations that provided for Chinese to study in the US) and other sources were at the forefront of the international research frontier (Wang 1966; Ye 2001). Most of these students returned without hesitation, hoping to salvage their country with scientific knowledge (Wang 2002). Through their efforts, modern science began to emerge on Chinese soil.

After taking control of the Chinese mainland in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attracted back some of those who had been dispatched by the Nationalist 国民党 government and had initially stayed abroad after the change in power. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and the 1960s, the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries were the primary overseas education destinations for Chinese students. These government-sponsored students were obligated to serve their country when their studies were complete, and indeed, more than 95 percent of them returned. From 1957 on, China sent a small number of students to selected Western countries, and most of them returned as well. In the meantime, some 2,500 Chinese students who were stranded abroad for various reasons after 1949 also came home. Between 1972 and 1976, as the Cultural Revolution 文化大革命 (1966–1976) started to wind down, China sent students to forty-nine countries (mainly for language studies), and these students came back too (Song 2003).

It’s probably fair to say, then, that during the first thirty years of Communist rule China experienced neither a brain drain nor a serious shortage of high-quality talent for its economic, educational, and scientific enterprises. The main problem was how these individuals were treated—they encountered numerous political obstacles and campaigns against them, as well as personal attacks and abuse. In all likelihood many were left wondering why they had returned to the “new” China in the first place. It’s no wonder that many of their children were among the first to leave when China reopened its door.

A new wave of overseas study began in 1978, and by the end of 2009, 1.62 million Chinese had gone abroad. These students went for language preparation courses, advanced degrees, and postdoctoral research, and studied fields ranging from the natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities to law and business administration. This period has been historically unprecedented, not only in terms of the number of students going abroad, but also in terms of the number of returnees. By 2002 some 153,000 had come back, exceeding the total number of Chinese who studied abroad between 1847 and 1978 (Sun and Zou 2003).

Measuring the Loss

Despite being the world’s largest exporter of students, there is no one agency in China that oversees students who study abroad and those who return. The Ministry of Education (MOE), Ministry of Personnel (now Human Resources and Social Security), and Ministry of Public Security all have a vested interest in these individuals and collect data accordingly, but they don’t necessarily share information among themselves, nor do they make all information public. Data that are available are neither accurate nor comprehensive. In most cases data are underreported, but overreporting is a problem as well—for example, data include high school students and short-term visiting scholars. Therefore, virtually no one knows the exact number of Chinese students who have studied abroad since 1978. The China Statistical Yearbook for the years 1978 to 2010, presumably using flow data from the MOE (data compiled over an entire reference period), shows that 1.75 million Chinese studied overseas during that thirty-year period (NBS 2011). Alternatively, the MOE’s stock statistics (data measured at the end of a reference period)—also official, but not included in any statistical yearbook—indicated that the total number was 1.91 million for the same time period (the number had risen to 2.25 million as of the end of 2011) (author’s analysis, unpublished).

Similarly, no one knows how many students have returned to China after finishing their overseas studies. The flow number for 1978–2010 (from the MOE, and in the China Statistical Yearbook) was 586,000—but the stock data (also released by the MOE) peg the number of returnees as of the end of 2010 at 632,000 (818,400 by the end of 2009) (author’s analysis, unpublished). It‘s very difficult to reconcile the variation in the statistics, even though they come from the same source. One can say, however, that the numbers are significant.

The Rate of Return

Having hoped for a high rate of student return, China’s leadership now recognizes that a large number of students abroad have decided not to come back, at least for the time being. In fact, Chinese statistics point to rather disappointing rates of return. The flow data give a net return rate of 33.4 percent for the period with available data; the rate is calculated by dividing the total number of returnees by the total number of overseas Chinese students through a particular year (NBS 1978–2010). In this case the flow-data rate is confirmed consistently by the stock-data rate, which was 33.2 percent at the end of 2010 and 36.5 percent at the end of 2011 (author’s analysis, unpublished).

Rates of return differ depending on whether students studying abroad depend on the state (guójiā gōngpài 国家公派), work unit or employer (dānwèi gōngpài 单位公派), or themselves (zìfèi 自费) for financial support. Between 1978 and 1996, more than 270,000 Chinese studied abroad and about 90,000 returned, yielding a 33.3 percent rate of return. The state sponsored 44,000 of these students and roughly 37,000 returned (84.1 percent). Employers sponsored 86,000 and around 48,000 returned (55.8 percent), but—pathetically—only 4,000 of the 139,000 self-supported students returned (2.7 percent) (Chen 2003). Since then, the rate of return for all three categories has increased; close to 100 percent of students sponsored by the state are coming back, due to both a financial bond that must be posted (a requirement that was instituted in 1996) and the upward-mobility opportunities that a rapidly growing economy offers (author’s analysis, unpublished).

The return rate for Chinese overseas students also appears to be linked to where they studied. Most students target the United States, and many who study there do not return.

Loss at the High End

Chinese who go abroad to study may be classified into roughly three categories. The first group includes those who are well-established in their respective fields, possess critical and innovative technology, and lead a team. These individuals are prominent in academia or the business community and have significant social influence. They include tenured professors at universities, principal investigators at research institutions and laboratories, and managers at or above the department level in corporations. They have produced innovative scientific achievements, published high-impact papers in leading international journals, received prestigious awards, or served foreign governments or nongovernmental organizations.

The second category consists of outstanding talent advancing toward the first category, as well as those postdoctoral fellows with excellent and prolific research records. Specialists in particular fields—professors, visiting scholars, or even graduate students—fall into a third category. They are important not necessarily because of their academic reputations and positions, but because they possess specialized knowledge or practical technology that China covets. So-called high-end talent includes all those in the first and second categories, and some in the third.

Statistics from the US National Science Foundation highlight the situation. Mainland Chinese have been among the top foreign recipients of PhDs in science and engineering (S&E) from US universities since the 1980s; many of them clearly indicated their intention to remain in the United States at the time they received their degrees, and most in fact have managed to stay on. Moreover, the trend has intensified in the last thirty years. For example, only 65 percent of the Chinese receiving S&E PhDs from US universities in the 1987–1988 academic year were still in the United States in 1992. For the 1992–1993 cohort and beyond, however, five-year stay rates rose to over 90 percent (NSB 2010). As a result, 62,500 Chinese S&E PhDs—more than three-quarters of whom received their degrees in the US—were in the American S&E workforce in 2003, the largest ethnicity among foreign-born US residents with PhDs (NSB 2006).

The situation does not look promising for the coming years, given that there are some 1.12 million Chinese abroad (with 823,000 still in the midst of their study programs) and that more (especially from leading Chinese universities) are expected to leave. According to a survey of foreign students in the United States, 54 percent of Chinese said that they would like to stay in the country for at least a few years after graduation (Wadhwa 2009). On the one hand, all this reflects China’s growing integration into the international S&T community and the global talent pool, but on the other it highlights the potential downside of the greater “freedom” and mobility that have been accorded to future members of China’s S&T community. Their actions, while not necessarily political in intent, do have important implications for a regime that is trying hard to maintain its credibility and legitimacy.

Who Has Returned?

The Chinese government realizes the seriousness of the brain drain and the growing need for more talented scientists and professionals, especially at the high end, and began to adopt various measures to reverse the trend in the 1990s. Almost all the major national programs in the fields of S&T and education have aimed at aggressively attracting the permanent return of the liuxuesheng. These initiatives include the One Hundred Talent Program 百人计划 at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS 中国科学院); the Cheung Kong Scholar Program 长江学者计划 sponsored by the MOE; the National Science Funds for Outstanding Young Scholars Program 国家杰出青年科学基金 from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC 国家自然科学基金会); and the Ministry of Personnel’s Hundreds, Thousands, and Ten Thousands of Talent Program 百千万人才工程. Even the CCP has been getting into the headhunting business: in 2008, the Department of Organization of the CCP Central Committee 中共中央组织部 initiated the Thousand Talent Program 千人计划 to help lure back the best and the brightest.

Accordingly, it is important to understand why people have returned. The returnees tend to belong to one of two groups: the first is made up of high-technology, management, finance, legal, and other professionals; the second includes academics. Apparently, professionals are finding a myriad of new, exciting, high-potential opportunities in China’s fast-growing economy where their foreign education, skills, cross-cultural experiences and exposure, professional and personal networks, and strong financial support are in great demand. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in late 2001, which coincided with the bursting of the “dot-com bubble” and the collapse of the NASDAQ after mid-2000, as well as the tightening of US immigration post-9/11, has shifted the balance of comparative advantage and caused increasing numbers of Chinese professionals to consider a career at home, speeding up their return. Finally, the global financial crisis that struck in 2008 had an effect as well. There is also the Chinese mentality of being “the head of the chicken rather than the tail of an ox,” and the glass-ceiling phenomenon in the US. Those in possession of patents or key technologies are especially valued, as China has started to pay more attention to intellectual property rights (IPRs) in its bid to become an innovation-oriented nation.

Although the exact number of returning professionals who possess specialized knowledge—including some in the most outstanding category—is unknown, the trend seems to have picked up. According to one study, 74 percent of Chinese high-technology professionals in the Silicon Valley have friends who have returned to work or start businesses in China, 49 percent have helped businesses at home, and 43 percent have considered or are quite likely to consider going home to live (Saxenian, Motoyama, and Quan 2002). Many more have taken advantage of the numerous incentives offered by China’s central and local governments to become entrepreneurs. At the same time, these “new argonauts” are back and forth between their adopted countries and their homeland, playing a very positive role in the movement of ideas, knowledge, and capital (Saxenian 2006).

Also included in this professional group are those who work in multinational corporations and foreign-invested enterprises. They lead or manage the China operations and staff the research laboratories of organizations like Microsoft, GE, Procter and Gamble, GlaxoSmithKline, and others whose broad global orientation makes employment attractive to many returning to China from graduate education or even jobs in the US and elsewhere (see Buderi and Huang [2006] for the case of Microsoft Research Asia). Returnees have campaigned to introduce venture-capital investment policies in China, and almost all of the world’s leading venture-capital companies seeking a foothold in China have returnees as executives or representatives (Sheff 2002). Strictly speaking, these returnees are employees in foreign companies, but they have helped to improve China’s business environment, corporate governance, and legal infrastructure through the ideas and concepts they bring back.

The second category of returnees is academics. The state-sponsored scholars and students who went abroad in the late 1970s and the early 1980s represent the group of early returnees who now occupy important positions in China’s research and education systems. These include many academicians (yuànshì 院士) in the CAS and the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE 中国工程院), university presidents, chief scientists of many government research programs, as well as key professors and senior researchers. Recent returnees also have been appointed into some of the talent-attracting programs mentioned above. More significantly, the 2007 appointments of Wan Gang 万钢 (a returnee with a doctorate from Germany) as Minister of Science and Technology, and Chen Zhu 陈竺 (a French-educated PhD) as Minister of Health further attests to the government’s appreciation of returnees and its growing commitment to capture foreign-trained talent and move these individuals up the career ladder very quickly—even if they lack some of the political credentials that once were deemed so vital.

Unfortunately these ongoing efforts, despite producing some positive outcomes, have not lured back most of the best and the brightest academics. While almost all Cheung Kong professors, One Hundred Talent Program appointees, and Distinguished Young Scholars have studied abroad, only between one-third and one-half have received foreign doctorates. The National Institute of Biological Sciences (NIBS 北京生命科学研究所) is a new, prestigious scientific establishment backed by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and the Beijing municipal government. It offers principal investigators internationally competitive salaries—around 400,000 yuan after taxes, a level about halfway between what’s typical in the US and in China—plus generous benefits that far exceed those in China’s research community. Principal investigators also are promised a significant level of autonomy in research and administration. Thus far, however, typical principal investigators are individuals who received their doctorates from Chinese universities or research institutes and have several years of postdoctoral experience in the United States.

In other words, these high-profile efforts—with enormous resources and incentives attached to them—have only attracted those who are less likely to find decent, permanent positions abroad and those who have gone overseas for foreign experience after earning their Chinese doctorates, meaning the effort to turn around the brain drain has yielded only modest success. Few of the post-1990s academic returnees are comparable with non-returnees in terms of quality, international reputation, and prestige (Xiao, Wang, Zhang, and Zhu 2005); according to a highly optimistic estimate, the best of them are in the 50–80th percentile (Zweig 2006). It explains why the CCP initiated the Thousand Talent Program, but it remains to be seen whether this program will change the situation fundamentally and dramatically.

Why Stay Away?

There are several reasons why many first-rate academics have not returned to China. One is that compared with other professionals, salaries for academics tend to be lower. More significant are problems related to securing appropriate education for their children and jobs for their spouses: if the family members still reside abroad, which is often the case, returnees not only have to travel back and forth but also put at risk their family situations and even their marriages. But the most important reasons appear to be institutional.

First, China remains a guānxi 关系-based (relationship-based) society. After these academics spend between five and ten years (if not more) overseas, it’s likely that their connections in China are no longer as strong as before. In other words, they do not have a social network to tap into for help and support during their initial adjustment period. For returnees, foreign credentials are necessary but not sufficient to guarantee professional success; guanxi is at least equally important. Therefore, only those having a good network of contacts, and more importantly, relationships with government officials and people with access to the resource-allocation process, may be able to secure the personal and material support they need. [

Second, because many Chinese scientists have not done research in an international setting, returnees may experience another culture shock—that is, they might not be able to easily find like-minded scholars with whom they can share information, discuss research methodology, or collaborate. The Chinese research system usually favors quick or instant results and doesn’t readily accept or tolerate failure, so vision and thinking are not part of the agenda. This situation has improved somewhat: a special amendment to the law on the progress of science and technology was passed in late 2007, acknowledging that failure is a part of the innovation process. Still, there is tremendous pressure on scientists, including returnees, for results. Moreover, it’s very difficult for returnees’ research to be judged on an equal footing with researchers who have not spent time overseas recently.

Third, academic returnees have to accept the types of political rituals that remain an ever-present part of the Chinese sociopolitical environment.

Fourth, there is growing evidence that plagiarism, fraud, and manipulation of data are much more serious problems than previously thought, and some returnees have been involved in recent high-profile cases. Even worse, the Chinese scientific community has not taken swift action to address this situation or the growing perception of widespread scientific fraud. Between the two, many possible returnees are thinking twice about becoming part of the Chinese research community.

Fifth, there are still restrictions on the types of social-science research that are politically acceptable, even though there seems to be an understanding that China cannot afford to expand its economy without the participation of social thinkers and public intellectuals. Most of the academic returnees are natural scientists; expatriate social scientists (except economists) have not returned, and they are cautious about working even part-time in China because they fear political clampdowns and see the harsh treatment that some of their colleagues have received when conducting research in China.

Finally, while the government and now the CCP continue to call for the return of the best and the brightest, institutional leaders may not necessarily welcome those who are more capable and might threaten their positions and leadership. Jealousy—sometimes called “red-eye disease” (hóngyǎnbìng 红眼病)—abounds inside Chinese organizations, leading to obstructionism in the workplace and making it difficult for high performers to do their work in a nonhostile setting. In some extreme cases, these leaders may not want outstanding scientists working at other institutions either, and may drive them go overseas a second time.

Academic returnees face spending several years setting up a laboratory, forming a team, recruiting students, applying for and obtaining grants, and actually starting their research, while at the same time adapting to a different research environment and participating in an assortment of activities deemed unimaginable when they were abroad. Sometimes, they are unable to survive back home because they no longer know the rules of the game or how it is played—or there may be no rules at all, as in the case of handling misconduct in research.

The Road Ahead

China has started to see a steady and growing reverse exodus of its overseas scientists and other professionals, and is benefiting from the brain circulation phenomenon. However, China’s brain drain will not diminish entirely in the foreseeable future. From the perspective of career development, the opportunity costs of working in China—low efficiency, personal conflict, and potential loss of close contacts with the international scientific community—are just too high for the best and the brightest. This helps explain why overseas Chinese academics, especially the most outstanding ones, are probably less likely to return or to be involved too deeply in China compared with their older counterparts. Moreover, political reform has lagged far behind the process of economic liberalization in mainland China, and potential political instability remains a concern among Chinese scholars and students abroad, and increasingly among domestic professionals as well. To some extent career advancement still depends on political affiliation and guanxi rather than on pure merit, a situation that continues to cause bright people to seek out societies where talent is highly valued and rewarded. As a result, many returnees retain their foreign passports or permanent resident status, or never give up their positions abroad. Top-down interference in science, education, and business, not to mention rampant corruption, remains a concern. Finally, the protection of property rights, especially IPRs, also constrains some Chinese from returning. In a word, political stability, the rule of law, and a competitive but fair environment in China are just as critical as economic opportunities in encouraging those thinking of leaving to stay, and in luring back some of those who have left.

The essay is based on Cao (2008) and Chapter 6 of Simon and Cao (2009).

Further Reading

Buderi, Robert, & Huang, Gregory T. (2006). Guanxi (The art of relationships): Microsoft, China, and Bill Gates’s plan to win the road ahead. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Cao Cong. (2008). China’s brain drain at the high end: Why government policies have failed to attract first-rate academics to return. Asian Population Studies 4(3), 331−345. doi:10.1080/17441730802496532

Chen, X. (2003). Talent mobility and the effects of overseas study [Chinese]. Retrieved July 24, 2003, from–07-09/news_4873.asp

Choi, Hyaeweol. (1995). An international scientific community: Asian scholars in the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Institute of International Education (IIE). (2012). Open doors report on international educational exchange. Retrieved January 31, 2012, from

Li Cheng. (Ed.). (2005). Bridging minds across the Pacific: US-China educational exchanges, 1978–2003. Lexington, MD: Lexington Books.

National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBS). (2011). China statistical yearbook. Beijing: China Statistical Press. Retrieved February 20, 2012, from [enter China statistical Yearbook in search grid]

National Science Board (NSB). (2006). Science and engineering indicators 2006. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

National Science Board (NSB). (2010). Science and engineering indicators 2010. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

Orleans, Leo A. (1992). Perspectives on China’s brain drain. In Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States (Eds.), China’s economic dilemmas in the 1990s: Problems of reforms, modernization, and interdependence (pp. 629–643). Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe.

Saxenian, AnnaLee. (2006). The new argonauts: Regional advantage in a global economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saxenian, AnnaLee; Motoyama, Yasuyuki; & Quan Xiaohong. (2002). Local and global networks of immigrant professionals in Silicon Valley. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California.

Sheff, David. (2002). China dawn: The story of a technology and business revolution. New York: HarperBusiness.

Simon, Denis Fred, & Cao, Cong. (2009). China’s emerging technological edge: Assessing the role of high-end talent. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Song Jian. (2003, April 15). Bainian jieli liuxuechao [One hundred years of overseas study movement]. Guangming Ribao [Guangming Daily]. Retrieved January 31, 2012, from

Sun, C., & Zou, S. (2003). Chinese overseas students are in more than 100 countries and regions (in Chinese). Retrieved October 6, 2003, from–10/05/content_1110988.htm

Wadhwa, Vivek. (2009). Tapping talent in a global economy: A reverse brain drain. Issues in Science and Technology 25(3) 45.

Wang, Yi Chu. (1966). Chinese intellectuals and the west, 1872–1949. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Wang Zuoyue. (2002). Saving China through science: The science society of China, scientific nationalism, and civil society in republican China. Osiris 17, 291–322.

Xiao Li; Wang Biaoxiang; Zhang Yan; & Zhu Bin. (2005). Alternative evaluation for China’s policies of attracting personnel studying abroad [Chinese]. Science of Science and Management of S&T, 2005(10), 90–94. doi:cnki:ISSN:1002-0241.0.2005-10-018

Ye Weili. (2001). Seeking modernity in China’s name: Chinese students in the United States, 1900–1927. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Zweig, David. (2006). Competing for talent: China’s strategies to reverse the brain drain. International Labour Review 145(1–2), 65–89. doi:10.1111/j.1564-913X.2006.tb00010.x

Source: Cao Cong. (2012). Brain drain. In Zha Qiang (Ed.), Education in China: Educational history, models, and initiatives. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.