As China grapples with what officials say is a severe “brain drain” problem taking away top scientific talent, the government has launched a multi-pronged push to woo back some of the country’s best and brightest minds.

The initiative, which may offer lessons to India which is facing a similar challenge, includes offering hundreds of millions of Yuan in seed-funding for returning entrepreneurs; annual government-sponsored “root-seeking” camps reaching out to younger Chinese; and assurances from state-run enterprises and government academies of support in pursuing research in science and technology rather than bogging them down in bureaucracy — a common concern among returnees, both in China and India.

Renewed concern

The Communist Party of China’s (CPC) official People’s Daily newspaper in a recent report said 87 per cent of top specialists in science and engineering who went overseas had “no plans to return”.

The newspaper obtained the figures from the CPC’s Coordination Group on Specialists, an inter-agency office that includes the Party Organisation Department — the top body for personnel appointments — and several government ministries.

The Coordination Group is spearheading an accelerated effort to bring back top talent. In 2010, the government launched a ten-year development plan to bring back 2,000 top Chinese specialists in the fields of information technology, aerospace and biotechnology.

The Ministry of Education has also set up a 600-million-Yuan ($97.5 million approx.) seed fund for 20,000 returnees to carry out research in the sciences, according to the official China Daily.

In addition, the State-run Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), a top research body, has put in place a programme offering two million Yuan ($325,000 approx.) to returnees for research. The programme has appeared to have some success — according to the newspaper, the CAS had brought back 1,568 scientists in the ten years.

Last month, Zhan Wenlong, Vice-President of the CAS, outlined at a conference in Beijing some steps his academy had taken to woo talent. Besides the two million Yuan research grant, the academy would also “guarantee that four-fifths of a researcher’s time will be spent in research” rather than handling administrative or bureaucratic matters.

The government has also started reaching out to younger overseas Chinese students. It has launched “root-seeking” summer camps, funding as many as 30,000 Chinese residing in 55 countries to travel to China every year in an attempt to make them “more familiar with their Ethnicity”.

Whether or not the moves will help stem the drain of China’s talent remains to be seen.

Many overseas Chinese remain wary of working for the state, either in government or in state-run enterprises, where the CPC still wields tight control even in matters of scientific and technological research. According to a survey conducted by the Beijing-based Institute of International Education, 46 per cent of returnees sought work in “foreign-funded” and “joint venture” firms in China, which are seen as more professionally-run and independent.

The downturn in the West may, however, boost the government’s efforts. Last year, while 399,600 students from China went overseas — more than in any other country — 272,900 students returned to the country, a rise of 46 per cent from the previous year, according to official figures.

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