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China economy

How a Chinese city has gone all out in the big battle for talent

Chengdu government offers free entry to famous sanctuary and incentives for homebuyers as it competes for professionals to drive innovation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 10:56am

A city in southwest China is trying to lure professionals with incentives including free visits to its famous panda sanctuary and fast-track hospital care as it vies with other governments to attract talent.

While local officials used to be obsessed with growth – competing for foreign investment and to fill factory jobs with preferential policies – a new battleground has emerged following calls to shift to an innovation-led economy.

The government of Chengdu in Sichuan province on Tuesday set out a number of measures that go beyond the standard rent subsidies and cash incentives, issuing its first batch of “talent green cards” to top researchers and entrepreneurs in the city.

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The 296 green card holders will enjoy privileges when buying a home, accessing medical care and obtaining a driving licence, the local government said.

Restrictions on non-local residents buying property will be waived for researchers, professors and hi-tech entrepreneurs buying their first homes.

They will also be fast-tracked at banks and hospitals, while entry will be free to a list of museums and cultural venues and the popular panda research base.

Other benefits include a discount on subway fares, lower bank loan interest rates and free use of shared bikes.

“The fight to win talent is getting more cutthroat,” said Zhu Lijia, a public policy professor at the state-run Chinese Academy of Governance. “The changing economic growth model is pushing up demand for skilled workers.”

Smaller cities were also offering generous incentives to lure professionals from first-tier cities, Zhu said, referring to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

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China’s household registration system makes it difficult for people changing cities for their job to access public health care and send their children to school without a permanent resident permit, or hukou.

Professionals might be more willing to relocate if they are given special treatment and these services are provided, Zhu said.

China has invested heavily to attract academics and entrepreneurs educated abroad with its so-called Thousand Talents Programme. It also revamped its “green cards” earlier this year to make it easier for foreigners to carry out tasks such as buying train tickets and opening bank accounts.

Similar campaigns to lure talent have appeared at the local level in the past two years.

The northern city of Tianjin launched a green card scheme in 2015 to attract highly skilled workers such as scientists, athletes and other foreign professionals. Card holders get VIP services at banks, clinics and even post offices.

In Shandong, highly skilled workers who move from outside the province can get health checks and use public sports facilities for free.

Meanwhile, the eastern city of Yiwu, home to the world’s biggest wholesale market, is now offering up to 50 million yuan (US$7.57 million) in cash rewards to those who set up innovative firms there.

The government also promises to find jobs for the spouses of those who move to Yiwu and get their children into public schools.

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But for some, the job itself is more important than the incentives.

Biologist Zhang Ruilin, who recently joined the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai after studying in the United States, said he wanted to work for an established research institution.

“Some places offer high salaries, but you need to start from scratch with everything,” Zhang said. “In order to do the research, you need to have the right colleagues, facilities and good students.”

Shen Jianfa, who specialises in population and migration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said local government incentives would be a waste of public resources if they were not used wisely.

“Innovation takes place when there is a team and a good knowledge environment,” Shen said. “Local governments need to assess whether they have the right conditions for innovation.”