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    Why China’s Overseas Academics Are Loath to Return Home

    With more favorable advancement opportunities at Western universities, China must re-evaluate how it plans to bring its best and brightest back.

    For overseas Chinese Ph.D. students on the fence about whether they should return home for a faculty position or stay abroad, the rigidity of China’s higher education institutions often spooks them into choosing the latter.

    Thirty-five-year-old Chen Weiqiang, now an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at New York University (NYU), would have loved to go back to his alma mater, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, for a faculty position. But he gave up an offer of an associate professor’s position in 2014 when he learned about the structure of promotion there.

    Data released by China’s Ministry of Education shows that as of 2016, the country had produced 4.58 million overseas students, about 70 percent of whom have already repatriated. About 11 percent of those returnees hold a doctoral degree. Chen, who obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2014, originally wanted to be one of them.

    Chen’s refusal of the job offer was not based on salary or living conditions. He would have been paid well and found a comfortable life in Shanghai, where he could also have visited his nearby parents regularly — an ideal situation he missed while studying abroad. Plus, the title he was offered, associate professor, ostensibly held more seniority than the position he currently holds at NYU. But after several conversations with Chen, I started to understand his choice. What struck me most is that his concerns show why the prospect of returning to China for a university position is often less enticing than staying put at an American institution.

    The rub is that even as an associate professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Chen would not have the opportunity to become a principal investigator. Without this title, he would be not able to perform independent research, and all the credit for his research achievements would likely go to what he calls a “big boss” — often a full professor or a professor with an administrative title, such as a dean or a chair, whose project funding proposals are more likely to be granted because of their higher rank and greater access to resources. Under these circumstances, an associate professor who participates in a project is working for the professors rather than with them, serving as the equivalent of a postdoctoral researcher in an American or British context.

    Such a system puts off many overseas talents from coming back to China, because in each scenario their career prospects three to five years down the road might look quite different: By then, American assistant professors might have several research achievements under their belts, but Chinese associate professors often have none. This situation was alarming to Chen: He couldn’t imagine burning through years of his youth without receiving the credit he deserves.

    It could be argued that the Chinese system motivates associate professors to work harder, so that within a few years they become full professors. But in fact, this is a false assumption that only pinpoints a second problem discouraging people like Chen from going home. Merit procedures in Chinese universities are highly rigid, as the system tends to ask faculty members to meet extremely detailed requirements and to compete with peers for a limited quota of professor positions. Chen says that this system rations access to academia, like a microcosm of a planned economy on campus. Sometimes it is only when an older professor retires that a position will be opened up to the younger staff.

    Chen’s narrative is echoed in a 2015 report by state news agency Xinhua, which shows that in one department at Tsinghua University in Beijing, 30 associate professors competed for one full professorship. Worse still, the number of associate professors in that department is increasing each year. It is not unusual for an academic in their 40s to still be an associate professor without seeing any prospects for advancement, as the advancement structure is not based on merit, but on seniority.

    “You think you deserve the position, but there are dozens of others who have also met the requirements and who got in line before you,” sighed Chen. As a result, he feels that he can’t trust the system; he has no sense of ownership over his fate once he enters the faculty system at China’s higher education institutions.

    Hunting for a faculty position at a university, as many domestic Chinese Ph.D. students do, is not the only way for overseas talent to look for a job. As a matter of fact, there is a path available to draw these young minds back to China with incentives and support: the “Recruitment Program for Young Professionals,” introduced in 2011. But according to Chen, this program is a paradox that has suffered from administrative interference.

    The Recruitment Program for Young Professionals targets academics and researchers under 40 years old who have several years of full-time work experience overseas. But the program, which is overseen by the central government, suffers from its inflexible, cookie-cutter approach: It favors only those who registered as workers while abroad, and has therefore not been suitable to people like Chen Weiqiang, who was only ever a student until he graduated.

    Later, Chen found a job at NYU and has been working toward securing a tenured position. It is hardly lucrative for him to give up his career at the American university, even for around $70,000 in incentives from his home country — and then he would have to factor in the complicated research and promotion systems at Chinese institutions. If anything, then, the recruitment program merely shows that China is reluctant to properly incubate its best academic talent from an early stage in their careers.

    China will need talent to realize the “Chinese Dream” initiative touted by President Xi Jinping. The country is now affluent enough to attract that talent from overseas, but in order to do that, it first needs to tackle systemic problems in its own academic institutions. Put simply, that means loosening up its strict faculty promotion systems; putting more effort into discovering talent through open, competitive, peer-reviewed procedures; and giving young people more independence and freedom in their research. Otherwise, the government will see more and more of its best researchers giving their home country the cold shoulder and flourishing abroad.

    Editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: A Chinese Ph.D. student talks to employers at a job fair in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Oct. 24, 2009. An Xin/VCG)