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Artificial intelligence

In battle for global tech talent, Beijing offers foreign researchers the perk of bringing their own helpers 

China is striving to attract more tech talent to help power its ambitions to be a leader in artificial intelligence and other advanced computing technologies. 

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 March, 2018, 10:56am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 March, 2018, 10:56am

Employees at Google’s $131 million campus in Boulder, Colorado, can play with pinball machines, shoot pool, and enjoy freshly made pizza in the cafeteria. Over in Beijing, the municipal government is offering an unusual perk: allowing foreign researchers to bring along their domestic helpers. 

That would be on top of more generous visa terms and even permanent residence for the top hires at Beijing’s Zhongguancun Science Park, announced by the municipal authorities this week. China has kept its doors largely shut to foreign domestic helpers, with most urban families relying on local migrant workers for domestic chores.

Zhongguancun is home to Lenovo, the world’s largest personal computer maker, and has ambitions to become China’s version of Silicon Valley. 

Under the new arrangements, foreign hires and their families will enjoy greater freedom of cross-border travel as well as benefits such as enrolling in local schools. Foreign scientists with permanent residency status can lead national-level innovation projects, where before such leadership positions were reserved for Chinese nationals.

China is competing with the US and other countries in the fields of artificial intelligence and life sciences. China’s State Council laid out goals last July to build a domestic AI industry worth nearly US$150 billion in the next few years, and to make the country a “innovation centre for AI” by 2030. Key to that ambition is finding enough people to staff and lead its research institutes and tech companies. 

Within China, Beijing is one of several cities competing for both local and foreign talent. Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, is home to companies like Tencent Holdings, Huawei Technologies and DJI. The two cities are working to build a joint innovation park to attract more talent to the region, while a “Greater Bay Area’ blueprint aims to build a mega economic and business hub by integrating Hong Kong and Macau with nine cities in neighbouring Guangdong province.

Even so, China is suffering from a shortage of qualified people to staff its ambitions to become a leader in AI, part of a global mismatch as countries employ advanced computing sciences to drive the next stage of growth, according to a report by Tencent last year. 

Attracting more foreign talent may help. Half of the start-ups valued at $1 billion or more in the US were founded by immigrants, according to a 2016 report by the National Foundation for American Policy.