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Sea turtles homing in on China must swim against academic tide

Scholars returning after years in Western universities can struggle to assimilate. Carolynne Wheeler writes


Sea turtles homing in on China must swim against academic tide
Credit: Getty
Choppy waters: many 'sea turtles' find it is difficult to make connections and to adjust to a China that has changed dramatically since they left


After 22 years in the US, renowned neuroscientist Rao Yi surprised many by packing up his office at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and returning to his home country of China.

Lured back by a prestigious post and the chance to help build China's research and development capabilities, Rao returned in 2007, just as the country prepared to launch its Thousand Talents programme to encourage Chinese academics living overseas to return to build its economy.

For the most part, the move has been positive for Rao: now dean of Peking University's School of Life Sciences, he has a lab named after him at the National Institute of Biological Sciences in Beijing and has publicly encouraged others to follow his lead. Yet even for this high-profile "sea turtle", as the returnees are nicknamed, the waters have not been smooth.

Rao attempted last year to run for a post with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, an advisory body responsible for designing much of the government's scientific policy.

He lost in the first round and later said he would not run again, expressing concern that the need for guanxi, or personal connections, had become more important than academic work in Chinese universities.

"In many aspects in society, there remains one very powerful habit, the consideration of personal connections. This is one important factor which impedes our development.

"Many people spend too much time in balancing and coordinating personal networking, which delays their actual work," Rao was quoted as saying on China National Radio.

Clearly, while China is lobbying hard for the return of its talented academics, all may not be as promised upon arrival.

Returnees often have difficulty making connections and adjusting to a China that has changed dramatically from the one they left.

Major influx

More than 2,100 academics have come back to China since the Thousand Talents programme was launched in 2008, exceeding the original target of 2,000 - and more are still coming.

The programme has been so successful that another version, targeting PhD graduates under 40 with at least three years' work experience, was launched in late 2010.

Chinese provinces and major cities have also developed their own versions to recruit more highly educated Chinese for positions back home.

"In these three years, the number of professors who have returned has exceeded the number in the past 20 years," says Wang Huiyao, himself a returnee after years of study in Canada and the UK and now vice-chairman of China's Western Returned Scholars Association (WRSA). He has also served as a consultant on the Thousand Talents programme.

"The role for them [to play] in coming back is important because, as you know, China has been experiencing rapid growth for the last number of years," Wang says.

"'Made in China' has been known [by the world] for the past 30 years, 150 million migrant workers did that. Now we need 'Created in China', and for 'Created in China', you need talent."

Yet what China has seen is that most of these so-called sea turtles are keeping one foot in each world. Wang himself, despite his influential position in Beijing, spent last semester at Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation as a Rajawali Fellow.

Many other returning professors, particularly those with links to Canada and the US, continue to cross the Pacific regularly to maintain links with overseas universities.

Perhaps in acknowledgement of the need to maintain professional ties, the Chinese government does not penalise this, although professors must still spend much of their time in China.

"I think both countries benefit, if you've got this very international, globalised talent group travelling; they will have fresh ideas and innovations," says Wang, who refers to himself and others like him as "seagulls".

Impact on promotion

Not only that, but this travel back and forth may be one way of dealing with the isolation and resentment that returning professors sometimes suffer as a result of local colleagues' attitudes towards them.

Being shut out of the local network can also impact on promotion, achieving tenure and publishing research.

In at least a few cases, returning to China - particularly for younger scholars - has ended in tragedy. In March, a Harvard-educated professor at Beijing's top-tier Renmin University of China was reported by local media to have jumped to his death from the ninth floor of a school building earlier this year. Cao Tingbing, a 39-year-old chemistry professor and dean of the chemistry department, was reported to have been suffering from severe depression since his return to China in 2008.

"Old-boy networks do form in most places, and not just in China," says Kam Louie, dean of arts at the University of Hong Kong where he also oversees the faculty's China-West Studies research initiative. "But connections are probably more conspicuously important in China for gaining promotions. Certainly, this seems to be a very common perception.

"There is also a common belief that the locals who stay behind are resentful of these 'outsiders' who do not know local conditions (for) getting ahead." Louie is himself a returnee, from the University of Queensland and the Australian National University.

Regrets about the past

"It would not surprise me that many regret returning to China," he says. "Most people harbour regrets about the past, and many would have spent years abroad, and would surely miss some things in the countries from which they have returned."

He said many academics are choosing to divide their time between China and their place of residence abroad, holding positions in both locations, retaining any foreign citizenships and, in some cases, leaving their families abroad.

At the WRSA, Wang says that some bumps are to be expected. "There may be people in China who feel too many professors are coming back too fast. But I think the general trend will overcome that."

Still, the opportunities available in China are attracting interest at a time when research spending in the rest of the world is being clawed back.

Opportunities and concerns

Man-Hong Yung, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, says: "The academic environment in China is quite good compared with the rest of the world, especially for my field, quantum information science, which is more related to fundamental science.

"I can see that many countries are putting less and less money in research related to basic sciences. However, there are many things [about China that] bother me a lot."

The Zhejiang-born, Hong Kong-educated scientist says that at least three Chinese institutes are interested in him so far, but he is still undecided about whether to return.

His concerns include the state of China's healthcare and environment, the lack of guarantees on whether the higher salaries on offer will continue past the length of the initial contract, and the country's political and economic future under the present authoritarian Communist Party regime.

Yung adds: "Many people, not only me, are wondering if the economic and political development in China is sustainable.

"I think the majority of people would think negatively."

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