A Brain Gain for China

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 16, 2000; Page A01

BEIJING When Chinese students began leaving for foreign studies in the early 1980s, mostly to the United States, few imagined they would stay. By 1989 and the crackdown against student-led democracy demonstrations around Tiananmen Square, few of the more than 300,000 studying abroad imagined they would go home.

But now, more than 10 years after the Tiananmen crisis, the pendulum has begun to swing back. China's massive brain drain has become a small brain gain, inserting foreign-trained experts into an economy, a government and a culture vastly different from what they learned about in American, European and Japanese universities.

While the vast majority of China's overseas students continue to stay away, the trickle of returnees, lured by the changes here, has turned into a growing stream. This year, 13,000 students are expected to come home, Chinese officials said, and the numbers are rising by about 13 percent a year.

"From my heart, I was educated here. My six brothers and sisters, my parents live here. This is my home," said Qiao Youlin, a 45-year-old scientist who left a promising career at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health three years ago to return to China to do cancer research. "I felt a sense of obligation. I felt the need to give something back to the people."

Several decades ago, an earlier generation of gifted Chinese returned from the Soviet Union, where they were schooled in Stalinism and a planned economy. President Jiang Zemin and legislative leader Li Peng are two examples, and what they learned in the Soviet Union has had an enduring influence on China's government, culture and economy. China's bureaucrats often think more like Leninist apparatchiks than bearded Mandarins, its dancers favor Russian-style ballet, and its architecture leans toward Stalinism.

Now, the new generation is bringing different ideas home, this time from Boston, Paris and Tokyo. These returnees have prominent positions on China's stock exchange, in its banks and in a few government ministries. Their presence is setting the scene for a culture clash between Soviet-style thinking and Western values, between the home-grown traditions, prejudices and sometimes surprising creativity spawned by Chinese communism and the rules-based, systematic approach advocated in such places as the United States.

"I don't know if we'll have a massive effect on economic and social life," said Peggy Yu, 35, the co-CEO of Dangdang.com, an online bookseller, who returned two years ago and started the company with her husband. "But in little pockets, here and there, we can make a difference."

For years, China has sought to lure its students back, but government-inspired programs mostly have failed. In the last year, the government has given the Chinese Academy of Sciences $72 million to recruit senior scientists, and the Ministry of Education has given Beijing University and Qinghua University more than $200 million to retain faculty members.

But educational institutions are the worst at keeping people from leaving or luring them back from overseas, Chinese officials say. Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University recently rejected four senior Chinese candidates from the United States because, a senior source at the school said, deans worried that their hold on power would be challenged by the foreign-based scholars' qualifications.

Opportunities in urban China are now the country's biggest drawing card. With the breathtaking changes of the last two decades, it is possible for people with money to find a spacious apartment, eat good Western food, get a cheap live-in maid and swig lattes at Starbucks. The private sector is growing quickly, and the Internet has maintained its allure.

China's imminent accession to the World Trade Organization is another magnet. Educated Chinese are set to benefit mightily from the economic changes and further opening of China's market mandated by the organization's rules.

"In the States, I knew what would happen," said Song Jingjing, 29, a clothing designer in Shanghai. "I had a car; I was able to buy a house; I had the American dream. But it was too predictable. I came back because no one knows what's going to happen here."

Dealing With Differences, Envy

Bespectacled, earnest and sometimes disarmingly blunt, Qiao Youlin was one of the first students to benefit when China reopened its universities in the late 1970s after the Cultural Revolution. Success in medical school gave him an opportunity to go abroad, and he jumped at it, spending what he called 11 "very good" years in the United States.

There, he and his wife, Yu Shajin, had two boys, one more than allowed urban couples under Chinese law. Yu had a good job at the National Cancer Institute doing research. Yu liked the relatively clean air in the United States, its open society and the ease with which people relate to one another. But Qiao wanted to return because China presents vast opportunities to do medical research. Some regions are extremely isolated, with some types of cancers concentrated in certain areas. Studying the causes of cancer in those areas and working on ways to prevent the disease was "the chance of a lifetime," Qiao said.

"When I was a child, I wanted to be a soldier riding a horse on the border to protect the people," Qiao said. "That is who I am. I chose medical school because I didn't want to do business. I wanted to benefit the people directly." He was also concerned that if he stayed too long in the United States, his children would never understand their roots. "They need to know they are Chinese," he said.

Qiao came back to China in 1997. The Cancer Hospital of the Chinese Academy of Medical Science offered him a job as a department chief, along with a 600-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment that is considered a luxury in Beijing. The hospital also helped secure a place in a good elementary school for his elder son.

Still, despite these advantages, readjusting to Chinese society and to a paycheck of about $400 a month has not been smooth for Qiao and his wife. The couple changed a lot in the United States. Unlike most of his colleagues, Qiao does not nap after lunch, and he has instituted a strict requirement for researchers under his charge to report progress in their projects, causing some friction.

Some of his colleagues have refused to cooperate. Aging hospital officials have also taken steps to clip the wings of Qiao and other such scientists who have returned from abroad. Qiao and three of his foreign-educated associates, for example, are not allowed to take on doctoral candidates. His hospital's board rejected a paper that won Qiao an international award.

"They do this just to embarrass you," Qiao said. "A lot of people are jealous."

For Yu, as for many Chinese women returning from abroad, the transition has been more difficult. The biggest problem, she says, has been the envy of others.

She is the mother of two "chubby boys," which is cause for jealousy in a city where one-child families are the norm. Add to that the fact that Qiao secured a coveted three-bedroom apartment, and there is even more cause for what the Chinese call "red-eye disease."

"Most of our new friends have been in some other country--the States, Europe," she said. "It's easier to make friends with these people when they have been outside a while."

One Marriage, Two Perspectives

A month or so ago, Peggy Yu and Li Guoqing had a tiff.

Li, a 36-year-old entrepreneur who built a small publishing empire in Beijing from scratch, wanted the online company that the pair co-owns to start selling movies and music. Yu, who has an MBA from New York University and worked as a banker in New York City, wanted to do some more market research.

Li won. Dangdang.com, an Amazon.com look-alike, will soon be hawking CDs.

"This is a key difference between people like me who returned from America and those homegrown entrepreneurs like Li," Yu said. "He wants to roar ahead and not worry about the consequences. I am always wanting more research. We call it the clash between guerrilla fighters like Li Guoqing, and me, the conventional troops."

For Yu, who is not related to Qiao Youlin's wife, the clash is even more personal because she and Li are married. "I'm the kind of person who's been trained to give you a 30-page report on the Frankfurt book fair," she said. "My husband doesn't have the patience. But he's got street smarts; he can smell an opportunity and knows how many can be made."

Yu says that just by looking at her employees' e-mails, she can tell where they have worked. "Employees from multinational firms say, 'Because of A, B, C, therefore D, E, F,' " Yu said. "But with people with no such experience, they will start with an opening paragraph with flowery language: 'I am very limited in my understanding of this subject, but I will try humbly to give you my perspective. . . .' What's your point?"

Yu finds other that little differences have made her return a lesson in cultural exchange. One has to do with how she raises her son, Alexander, who was born in New York in 1997. Yu treats her boy with a pretty firm hand, similar to how she was raised in China in the 1960s and '70s. This has surprised her colleagues. In urban China these days, single-child families have spawned millions of "little emperors," spoiled children who are used to being the focus of their parents' and their grandparents' love.

"I let him pick up a piece of junk food from the store twice a week. I make sure he's got time to play outdoors. I also make him tie his own shoes, even if it's slow, something few people understand," Yu said. "And, still, everybody says I'm too tough on him."

Yu came back for China for love. She met Li at a French restaurant on New York's Lower East Side in the summer of 1996, and by year's end they were married. Although his businesses in China were extremely successful, Li does not speak English very well, and the couple decided that Yu, who was the more flexible of the pair, would return to China.

The first thing Yu did upon returning was rationalize Li's firms according to a Western model. In addition to his publishing house, Li was also running a taxi company, an ad agency, a trading company and a financial services firm.

"We got rid of them," she said. "That was the first culture clash. And I won."

'We . . . Will Make a Difference'

Rose Zeng, 36, a lawyer based in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, was treated like a "ghost," a southern Chinese expression for foreigners, when she returned to China after finishing law school in Los Angeles.

"My Mandarin was worse than yours," Zeng told a foreign reporter, "because really I didn't have a chance to speak at all in L.A. It got very rusty."

Like many Chinese students abroad, Zeng immersed herself in the United States. With her Chinese friends and even with her husband, who joined her at Loyola Law School, she found herself speaking English.

"When I first went to America, a law professor told me I would never go home and that I would start a new family there," Zeng recalled. "He was wrong on both counts. My family is strong, and I came back because I love the law and I wanted to practice it in China. I'm still a very traditional Chinese woman."

Zeng returned with dreams of becoming a judge. These days, however, her fervor for entering China's judicial system has mellowed. Over the past few years, she worked first for an American law firm, then for a Chinese firm. Now with several colleagues she is establishing her own firm, which she plans to call United Intellectus.

Hard-driving, straight-talking and ambitious, Zeng is a fixture in the Guangzhou business world. With her gravelly voice and easy laugh, she is a hit among both clients and Chinese officials. But Zeng's style has also irked some of her colleagues.

"A lot of people here are happier with a lower standard of work," Zeng said. " 'This is China,' they say. 'You don't need a 40-page contract.' I say, if you cover all the liabilities in three pages, fine. If not, go back and do your work."

A changing China, desperate for good lawyers, lured Zeng and her husband back to their home town. Guangzhou has changed enormously in the past 10 years. Its shopping markets and malls are now stuffed with every product imaginable. It has tennis courts and gyms for the newly rich. Zeng and her husband are thinking about restoring a pre-Chinese revolution house that has been in their family for years.

Like many other Chinese returnees, Zeng is deeply aware of the distance China still has to travel. But she chafes at the Chinese who criticize from afar.

"I am frustrated that some cannot imagine how to practice law in a country that they think has no law. My response to them is: That is biased. And more importantly, the world will not get any better if all of us bury ourselves in dreams and hide away from the realities," she said. "I do believe that we, together, will make a difference."

Pausing over a succulent Cantonese lunch, Zeng smiled. "We also have a very good life here. I tell my Chinese friends abroad they should come home, too."

2000 The Washington Post Company