Brain drain with a silver lining

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 February, 2007, 12:00am

A brain drain was much talked about in Hong Kong in the 1990s. Our best and brightest worried that life after reconnection with the motherland on July 1, 1997, might not be all that rosy. So they decamped in droves to new pastures, sparking fears among officialdom that with them would go our competitive edge.

A decade later, and Hong Kong is no worse off for the scurry to the exits. To quote Shakespeare, 'twas much ado about nothing.

Our comrades across the border didn't note our lesson, and now wear the same worried frowns that Hong Kong administrators once did. Mainland media reports this week quoted a study showing that two-thirds of students who go overseas to study do not return after graduating. It was compiled by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Li Xiaoli. The news reports suggested that the end was nigh for the economic miracle unless the tide turned.

'Many talented Chinese emigrated overseas because they could not find opportunity at home,' the China Daily said in an editorial. 'It's time to nurture reverse migration.'

Ms Li had pressed the alarm bell. 'It has been a great loss for China ... to see well-educated professionals leave after the country has invested a lot in them,' she said. 'China is now in dire need of people of expertise.'

Education Ministry figures show that 66 per cent of the estimated 1 million students who have gone overseas to study since the 1980s have not returned.

The numbers are rising: since 2002, with 100,000 a year now going to other countries to further their education, only 20,000 to 30,000 are coming back annually.

But, with mainland China's annual economic growth rates still thundering along at nearly 10 per cent, it is difficult to see the need to stop mainlanders from seeking opportunities abroad. Perhaps it's so that the gross domestic product can roar beyond that figure, and higher? Or maybe so that the US$20 billion that the 35 million overseas Chinese remit each year will remain stagnant?

Mainland officials have little reason to worry about brain drain, says migration expert Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the associate director of the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research. 'The Chinese government is up there with the best in the world at engaging with its diaspora: getting overseas Chinese to come back and do business, and building and supporting diaspora networks overseas,' Dr Sriskandarajah said.

'And let's not forget how important the Chinese diaspora has been in fuelling some of China's economic growth, through trade and investment networks over the past few decades.'

Brain drain is an international phenomenon heightened in recent years by the opening of national borders to aid globalisation. While China has more citizens living overseas than any other nation, the figure as a proportion of the total population is lower than for many other countries.

New Zealand and Ireland top that list, with the Philippines, Australia and Britain high up.

If nations deal with the issue sensibly, they will benefit: Australia and New Zealand have built good diplomatic links with their citizens abroad, ensuring loyalty. Under welcoming immigration policies, those who leave are replaced by migrants who are just as talented.

Development also helps. Taiwan and India suffered large outflows of students to the technology hubs of North America and Europe in the 1980s, but they have since returned home to work in the burgeoning information technology sectors.

There is also a straightforward formula to get people to stay put rather than go elsewhere in search of opportunities: a combination of deregulation, open competition and an attractive taxation system.

Hong Kong has, to a large degree, got the mix right.

Mainland officials need look no further for clues on how to resolve their perceived dilemma. If they follow the example within their own country, the highly skilled student lost today will be tomorrow's business leader, helping drive the nation forward.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor.