To reverse brain drain, China should be more flexible on dual citizenship

Interesting arguments but likely overstates the importance of dual citizenship as a factor in facilitating a return of former Chinese nationals to China, particularly given Chinese government general repression (not limited to Uyghurs and Hong Kong) and control (e.g., COVID lockdowns):

Citizenship has become a sensitive topic in China. Every so often, you’ll see lists in the Chinese media – of film stars who hold foreign passports, or billionaires who made money in China but now hold foreign passports. On the Chinese internet, some of these individuals get labelled as unpatriotic, or worse.

One of netizens’ latest targets is Harvard physics professor Xi Yin, a China-born prodigy who has been quoted as saying he has no plans to return to his native country at present. A US citizen now, Yin is also married to an American woman.

China does not allow dual citizenship. The line of reasoning seems to be that the authorities don’t want to create a group of people who enjoy too much privilege, or potentially allow criminals to evade punishment. Critics say it is a way of ensuring citizens’ loyalty or maintaining a monoculture.

But much of the rest of the world has moved on, with more countries embracing dual citizenship against the backdrop of globalisation. Back in the 1960s, only one-third of countries allowed dual citizenship. Today, 75 per cent do.

Perhaps China should follow suit. It would help reverse the brain drain from the country.

Around the time Deng Xiaoping launched the reform and opening up policy, students were sent abroad to study, in countries including the US, Canada and the UK. This trend did not always pay off. In 2007, China Daily reported that, between 1978 and 2006, 1.06 million Chinese went overseas for studies and more than 70 per cent chose not to return. At that time, China probably suffered the most severe brain drain in the world.

To tackle the problem, Beijing has increased investment in higher education, and research and development. It introduced programmes such as the Thousand Talents Planto lure back leading Chinese talent. Under the plan “sea turtles”, or returnees from overseas – in Chinese, the two terms are homonyms – may receive a one-time bonus of 1 million yuan (US$148,400). However, the programme has reportedly delivered mixed results. Not nearly enough sea turtles swim home.

As China grew rich, it became common practice among affluent families to send children abroad for further education. Between 2015 and 2019, 80 per cent of these students did return. Yet, China is still losing first-rate talent. In recent years, a reported 80 per cent of Chinese PhD students in the US have been reluctant to return.

Many developing countries in the world lose talent to the US, but China probably suffers more, especially in the realm of hi-tech. Those bright Chinese minds working at the cutting edge of American technology might also be hampering China’s own tech ambitions.

Indeed, China’s hope of dominating artificial intelligence may be threatened by the brain drain. According to a study conducted by MacroPolo, a think tank run by the Paulson Institute, Chinese researchers accounted for a quarter of the authors whose papers were accepted by a prestigious AI conference in 2019.

However, three-quarters of the Chinese authors were working outside China, and 85 per cent of those were working in the US, at tech giants such as Google or universities like UCLA.

Source: To reverse brain drain, China should be more flexible on dual citizenship

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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