by Jonathan Chow
China has worked hard to overcome its brain drain problem, trying to improve the prestige of its educational institutions, uphold the promise of economic growth and prosperity, and provide a prosperous and comfortable environment for its educated elite.
But in spite of this, a good portion of educated Chinese still seek opportunities for a one-way ticket abroad. According to a Gallup survey conducted in November 2008, one in five college-educated Chinese wants to emigrate permanently to a foreign country.
The Gallup survey also found that “the top destination choice among those Chinese who say they would like to move, is the United States (28%), followed by South Korea (14%) and France (8%).”
It’s not surprising that the U.S. would be first pick, but South Korea getting second place was interesting to us, especially considering how deeply South Korea was affected by the 2008 financial crisis. In the past year, the country faced a 30% drop in the value of its currency and in October 2008, a month before the survey was conducted, the New York Times wrote that South Koreans were “reliving the nightmare of the last financial crisis.” Although the affordability of higher education in Korea may be a plus, the promise of long-term employment for a Chinese national is less certain.
The reasons for this outflow of human capital are wide and varied, but Gallup points out the two big ones: education and employment.
In terms of education, though a selection of China’s universities like Beijing Univeristy and Tsinghua have gained global prestige, its overall higher education environment is still much less developed than in Western countries.
In terms of employment, according to Gallup: “so far, China’s economic exuberance has not translated to widespread confidence in job markets. Brain drain will continue to be a concern as long as college-educated Chinese 1) fail to see job growth outpacing the influx of people to the cities and 2) compare their pay levels unfavorably to those of professionals in developed countries.”
We see one more big reason for Chinese to go abroad: raising a family. Chinese who go abroad are free to have as many children as they want in an environment with higher standards of living. In developed countries they have access to better health care, less pollution, and can more easily place their kids on educational tracks toward the world’s best universities.
The speed of China’s rise has been unprecedented, but if it hopes to keep 20% of its best and brightest seeking to emigrate it’s going to have to do more.