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Empire Exodus: How Many Chinese Students Flock to the U.S. and What Are Their Plans?


China is home to more than 100 million young people--many of whom wish to pursue careers in science and engineering. A pressing concern for the Chinese government and its national industries is to cultivate this growing subpopulation and improve the nation's in-house research capabilities, and its economy. "Scientific research and education are both national priorities and are incorporated into all of China's development strategies," wrote Jiang Zemin, president of the People's Republic of China, in a recent Science editorial.

This sentiment is echoed by Jean M. Johnson, a senior analyst and expert in Chinese affairs at the National Science Foundation: "China's getting very serious about building [an educational] infrastructure," she remarks. "They're attempting to build major research centers with 'factories' on campus," she explains. With money-making industries allied with many universities, local financial support for research is becoming less of a concern. But despite new political thrusts and initiatives, many of the country's elite scientists still prefer to do their work in the U.S.

How Many Chinese Students Graduate From U.S. Universities?

The newly placed emphasis on graduate support has helped to boost the numbers of Ph.D.s graduating from Chinese universities (see figure 1). In 1997, for example, more than 5000 Chinese students received their Ph.D.s in China, compared with just over 2000 who completed their graduate education in the U.S. However, NSF statistics prepared for Next Wave by Mark Regets, a senior analyst at the NSF, reveal that up until 1993 the available data show that more than 20,000 Chinese students obtained their Ph.D.s from U.S. institutions. During the same period, only an estimated 1600 Chinese natives working in the U.S. had earned their Ph.D.s at Chinese universities.

Figure 1

Most Chinese Students Plan to Stay in the U.S.

Regardless of where they undertake graduate studies, a high proportion of Chinese students still harbor strong desires to live and work in the U.S. (see figure 2). Indeed, 85.5% of Chinese citizens receiving doctorates from U.S. universities between 1988 and 1996 said they planned to stay in the U.S. Because of such yearnings, China is not fully able to "absorb their scientific and technological expertise," states Johnson. Scientists from Asian countries with more robust economies, on the other hand, tend to be easier to lure back home after they complete their Ph.D.s in the U.S. For example, only 22.7% of South Korea's U.S.-educated graduates sought offers to reside in the U.S. during 1988-96.

Figure 2

Of the Chinese scientists who banked on staying in the U.S. during 1988-96, almost half (48%) had firm offers to stay. The vast majority found themselves in postdoctoral positions--in fact, there were more Chinese postdocs in the U.S. during those years than there were Korean, Taiwanese, Indian, British, and French nationals combined. But Chinese citizens also found employment in U.S. industry, government, and nonprofit domains. Many take up faculty positions (see figure 3).

This exodus was compounded during China's political turmoil in the early 90s, when the number of Chinese graduates planning to reside in the U.S. jumped three-fold. In part, this surge was due to the 1992 Chinese Student Protection Act--a one-time deal from the U.S. government that enabled Chinese students on temporary visas to shift to permanent residency status. Consequently, the number of Chinese Ph.D.s in science and engineering issued with permanent U.S. visas shot up from 63% in 1990 to 96.7% in 1994, paving the way for greater numbers of would-be scientists to flock to the U.S.

Figure 3

The Chinese Recruiting "Machine"

Because the pull from the East to the West is strong, the apparent ease with which Chinese natives find their way into U.S. laboratories may have inadvertently "created a different type of student," suggests Caren Chang, an assistant professor in molecular biology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Students were more dedicated to the science before," she says, adding she now feels "many students are looking for quick opportunities." Two graduate students recently left her lab to explore other employment opportunities instead of completing the Ph.D. projects they originally came to the lab to work on. Others have also come and gone prematurely, often opting for computer science-related positions elsewhere. The result: Chang is now more cautious of recruiting Chinese students.

Chuan Sheng Liu, professor of physics at the University of Maryland, concurs, stating that many physics students end up touting their skills on Wall Street and not down the academic corridors they originally set out to conquer. Shifts from academe to information technology and business provide faster, richer rewards than those gained after a decade's toil at the bench. And for Chinese graduate students who are sometimes paid paltry stipends, the search for more profitable means of employment is necessary in order to support their families.

Nevertheless, Chang discloses that she is "going to change my [recruiting] criteria." She now views mailed requests to work with in her lab as "standard form letters," largely designed to caress faculty egos and so win a place in a U.S. lab. Chang--a Chinese-American born in the States--admits that although she needs the research personnel, she "doesn't want to be part of the machine that brings students over."

A Very Good Asset

While the exodus is damaging to China's research and development prospects, it has been welcomed by the U.S. workforce, says the NSF's Chang. Chinese scientists "are a very good asset" to the U.S. economy he reveals, explaining that many American employers are quick to hire U.S.-educated Chinese familiar with U.S. culture and industry to work in outstations their companies establish in Asia.

Read More on Mobility

Many of the data cited in this article were obtained through the following publications:

Science and Engineering Indicators--2000 , National Science Board (NSB-00-1)

International Mobility of Scientists and Engineers to the United States--Brain Drain or Brain Circulation? NSF, Issue Brief, November 10, 1998

Statistical Profiles of Foreign Doctoral Recipients in Science and Engineering: Plans to Stay in the United States, Science Resources Studies report, NSF

Luring Chinese Scientists Back Home

China is also reaching out to its nationals who are living and working abroad, but with the goal of persuading them to return home. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, for example, aims to attract 10,000 U.S.-based scientists back to China, so that the country can tap into their intellectual expertise. Other Chinese agencies offer temporary, rather than permanent assignments, enabling scientists to revisit China regularly and provide much-needed guidance.

Reasons for Staying Abroad

Even with these initiatives, it's an uphill battle. Certainly, returning scientists face relatively lower salaries, because even though China considers its U.S.-educated citizens the cream of the crop, the country cannot offer competitive wages. The top salary for a senior researcher in China, relates Bill Chang, senior program manager for East Asia and Pacific programs at the NSF, is only the equivalent of roughly US$15,000. Another major reason students look to the U.S. for work is simply due to the dearth of science-related jobs in their home country.

Future Prospects

While the Chinese economy is not yet as dynamic as the movement of its citizens, China is making substantial financial and political efforts to rectify the situation. As the country attempts to recreate numerous Silicon Valleys within her borders, many delegations to the U.S. return with new ideas, productive collaborations, and cutting-edge educational strategies.

The vortex that carries China's people toward Western shores remains a powerful one, but by embracing the aspirations of its blossoming young researchers, China hopes to stem the flow and recreate its scientific empire.

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