China must find a way to reverse brain drain as talent flows overseas

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 5:23am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 5:23am

A Beijing-based think tank has called for a shake-up of China's immigration bureaucracy to tackle a brain drain - a huge net loss of people taking their skills and wealth abroad. Last year, 9.34 million mainlanders emigrated, mostly to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, while only 848,000 foreigners migrated - a deficit of 8.5 million, according to the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG).

The immigration system under the Ministry of Public Security involves different authorities with conflicting agendas. There may be a case, as the centre argues, for upgrading it to ministerial level in its own right to streamline the system and lower barriers to desirable migrants. But that would not address the fact that most Chinese emigrants are successful middle-class, middle-aged people, for whom the mainland's social and political development has not kept pace with the economic environment in which they achieved their success. In last year's report, the CCG said the rich and educated elites had become the main force in the latest round of emigration, with many leaving in search of a more democratic society, a better environment and better education.

In terms of numbers, a country of more than 1.3 billion with a bottomless talent pool may be able to afford it. But it is doubtful it can continue to afford the loss of skills and wealth and the weakening of middle-class support for social reform. For example, just 6,000-odd Chinese who moved to the US in 2012 through the investment immigration scheme triggered an asset outflow of between US$3 billion and US$6 billion, without counting expenditure such as home purchases.

China's modernisation has raised middle-class expectations of cleaner government and cleaner air which many are seeking elsewhere. Many will never return for good - 150,000 mainlanders took overseas citizenship last year. The drive for sustainable development and the campaign against official corruption led by President Xi Jinping are important to reversing the outflow.