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China Brain Drain Being Reversed

December 14, 1998

BEIJING (AP) _ Michael Cao was doing fine in New York. He made friends easily, found the city exciting, and thrived on the hectic pace. But something stronger pulled him back to his home in China.

Just as he felt he was hitting a glass ceiling at the Manhattan investment firm where he worked, Cao started to read about China’s stunning economic transformation.

``There were limits to what I could do in the United States,″ Cao said recently in an interview in China. ``Here it’s polluted, it’s crowded, the living conditions are not good. So what? I can do what I want.″

People like Cao who return to China with advanced degrees from abroad are just the beginning of a reversal of a serious brain drain. Even though their numbers are small, they are becoming an important force for changing China and bringing the outside world closer to home.

Twenty years ago, senior leader Deng Xiaoping declared that China’s best students should pursue advanced degrees in the West. They would become the intellectual propellant for the reforms that launched China from communes and central planning toward markets and laws.

Since then, more than 300,000 Chinese students, many from the nation’s top universities, have gone abroad to study, usually to the United States.

Most have not rushed back to China. Of the 160,000 Chinese students who have gone to the United States, less than 20 percent are estimated to have returned.

The returnees are a prestigious lot, including a vice president of elite Peking University, senior researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and economists at the China Center for Economic Research who advise Premier Zhu Rongji.

Others with less influential positions exert a more subtle influence, bringing back experience with Western business and personal freedoms.

It was a mix of career opportunity and patriotism that drew Cao Jun, Michael Cao to his American friends, back to China two years ago after pursuing a master’s in business administration in New York.

Cao, who specializes in mergers and acquisitions, went to work for CITIC, the Chinese government’s investment arm, after returning from six years in the United States. He insists his experience doesn’t set him apart from his Chinese friends who are lawyers, bankers and artists.

China has been rapidly tuning into Western ideas and lifestyles through foreign movies, foreign fashion magazines in Chinese-language editions and the growing use of the Internet.

``I was amazed at the changes in China among my friends when I got back,″ Cao said. Political pressure from above is less intense, and ``they’re a lot more open to new ideas.″

Zhang Jiansheng of the Western Returned Scholars Association, a non-governmental group that has met in the same house near Tiananmen Square since the 1920s, said the main draw is an influential job.

``Of course they don’t enjoy luxury. They can’t afford a house or a car. But they enjoy their job. You cannot force them back, so you have to attract them,″ he said.

Zhang predicted that in five to 10 years, people with degrees from the United States would hold important positions in the Chinese government, just as the technocrats trained in the Soviet Union in the 1950s do now.

Through its web site, the association offers to help Chinese academics abroad make professional links in China, or romantic ones through a matchmaking service. Next spring it will sponsor its first conference in the United States.

U.S. rules call for granting student visas only to people likely to return to China.

But many find legal ways to avoid returning. Only 5 percent of Chinese students are believed to abide by the terms of their student visas and return after one year of work experience following graduation, said a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity.

After Japan, China ranks No. 2 in the number of foreign students in the United States.

Li Yifei graduated from the nation’s college for diplomats before leaving China at 21 to attend Baylor College in Waco, Texas.

While in the United States, Li met and married her husband, then a fellow Chinese expatriate who now is an adviser to China’s first investment bank.

Li said that as a manager of the Beijing office of the public relations company Burson-Marsteller, she has an advantage: She can communicate easily with American business clients and has the trust of influential Chinese contacts.

``Chinese who go to study abroad are the risk takers,″ she said.

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