"Brain Drain" Phenomenon in India and China


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“Brain Drain” refers to the continued outward flow of talented students and highly skilled professionals from developing countries to developed countries. This phenomenon has presented daunting challenges to the developing countries as they struggle to retain their best human resources. Many countries in Asia and Africa have been helplessly witnessing this outflow, especially India and China as they are the two countries who nationals constitute the maximum number in this phenomenon.

But since the early 2000s and especially after the global financial crisis in 2008-09, a new phenomenon is unfolding. As the economic opportunities are diminishing in the developed West and increasing opportunities are available in the emerging economies, more and more emigrants are coming back to their home countries. This has been referred to as “Brain Gain” and countries like India and China have instituted policies to accelerate and capitalize upon this phenomenon.

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This paper deals with the following research questions: (a) What are the factors behind “Brain Drain” in China and India; (b) What are the factors behind “Brain Gain” in India and China; (c) What specific policies have been adopted by governments in China and India to encourage “Brain Gain”?

“Brain Drain” is a serious social and economic problem confronting the developing countries for several decades. It is a phenomenon which robs the developing countries of their valuable human talent, when their best and brightest people who go abroad to study opt to stay in the developed world. (Dickinson 2003). It involves the voluntary exodus of highly educated, skilled and experienced professional to a select few countries in the developed world. (Khadria 1999)

China and India are the two countries most affected by the brain drain as they contribute the largest number of emigrants under the Brain Drain phenomenon. The favored destination of Indians and Chinese are the developed countries in the West especially United States, United Kingdom and Germany. Taking United States as the flagship instance, I try to present the magnitude of Indian and Chinese brain drain.

The number of Indians in United States has grown from 12,000 in 1960 to 2.4 Million in 2016. The substantial increase can be attributed to a series of legislative and policy measures adopted by US government in the period from 1965 to 1990. These include amendment of Immigration Act 1952 to remove ‘national-origin’ quotas, introduction of temporary skilled worker programs and creation of employment-based permanent visas like H1-B. In 2016, Indians were the topmost recipients of H1B visa, for highly skilled professionals. Indians also constituted the second largest group of international students in the United States. (Zong and Batalova 2017a).

The Chinese constitute the third largest immigrant group in United States after Mexicans and Indians. Their number has grown over six times since 1980 reaching 2.3 Million in 2016. The first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in mid-19th century as construction workers in the West coast, but strong anti-Chinese sentiments led to the enactment of Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, restricting their immigration. This act was repealed in 1943 and beginning from the 1960s several legislative and policy changes, both in US and China, contributed to the growth of Chinese immigration. This wave of immigrants was of highly skilled professionals or students pursuing higher education. Chinese are the 2nd largest recipients of H1B visa, after India and constitute the largest group of international students in United States. (Zong and Batalova 2017b)

Although similar in many respects the Chinese and Indian cases differ in the nature of migration. A larger proportion of Chinese migrants are those who go abroad to study and then stay abroad. This has been referred by Kapur (2007) as “migrate then educate”. Whereas, the larger proportion of Indian migrants are those who study in India but choose to work abroad. Kapur (2007) refers to this as “educate then migrate”. In this respect, Indian brain is worse than Chinese brain drain as those who leave had made use of limited educational resources and opportunities of India. They had studied under India’s highly subsidized education and elite institutions such as IITs, IIMs and AIIMS and then chose to leave India, thus draining India of its “brain power”.

The conventional approach to explain brain drain phenomenon has been the Push-Pull theory. As per this theory, push factors in the source country motivate the person to emigrate. These include political instability, high unemployment, low income and lack of good research facilities. On the other hand, the pull factors in the host country attract the person to immigrate. These include political stability, high income, high quality of life, better facilities for research and development.

This model has been criticized by scholars as it does not explain the phenomenon of large number of emigrants returning back to their native countries in recent years. Wadhwa (2009) has referred to this process as ‘Reverse Brain Drain’. Many factors contribute to this return migration such as discrimination in host country and improved socio-economic conditions in home country. Li and Bray (2007), have conceptualized these factors as ‘Reverse Push’ and ‘Reverse Pull’ factors, respectively. The decision of the individual to emigrate and of the emigrant to stay back or return is determined by an interplay of all these factors.

The traditional Push-Pull theory suffers from another limitation as it is entirely focused on factors external to the individual. Li and Bray (2007) have argued that the traditional push and pull model is focused only on the external forces and does not incorporate factors internal to individuals such as their family backgrounds, academic characteristics, personal perceptions and motivations for choice of locations and institutions. These internal factors also shape the affordability, accessibility and desirability of higher education.

Dimmock and Leong (2010) have provided a useful framework to explain how internal factors such as individual characteristics and personal belief system affect the way students react to push and pull factors. In their study of mainland Chinese students studying in Singapore they took 4 variables that capture the perspective of emigrant Chinese students: (1) Push factors; (2) Pull factors; (3) Individual resilience; (4) future intentions. Based on the responses received, they categorized the students into 3 types: (1) Opportunists; (2) Intellectuals and (3) Loyalists.

According to this model, different individuals react differently to these forces depending on their academic backgrounds, personal belief systems, individual characteristics and motivations. Based on the choices that they make individuals could be broadly classified into three: Opportunists, Intellectuals and Loyalists. For example, a loyalist would put more weight on reverse pull factors in home country than on pull factors in host country, they would be more likely to return to home country than stay in host country. (Cheung and Xu 2015)

Those in the ‘Opportunists’ category respond more favorably to the attractive pull factors overseas rather than the push factors such as lack of employment and learning facilities at home. This category includes those who had a stable job which they gave up to find greener pastures abroad. Individuals in this category are characterized by their flexibility. (Dimmock and Leong 2010)

Those in the ‘Intellectuals’ category respond more favorably to the push factors at home. They are deeply determined to excel in their academic pursuits and find few suitable facilities to match their ambitions. They realize that in order to reach the apex of education they need to venture overseas. (ibid)

The ‘Loyalists’ category includes those who try to balance their patriotism and pragmatism. They recognize the deficiencies in their national schools and work environment but do not allow their loyalty to deny them better facilities abroad. They believe that by venturing overseas they can fulfil both personal ambitions and serve China by their knowledge. (ibid)

Unavailability of gainful employment suited to the individual’s credentials also contribute to brain drain. Lack of planning in education produces overcapacity in some sectors while under capacity in other fields. Due to the overproduction and low rate of utilization of talent, many graduates remain unemployed or underemployed in developing countries. These graduates and working professionals are most likely to emigrate to fully realize their potential in developed economies. Unplanned and cheap education available in developing countries added up with unemployment problems contributes to the pool of brain drain. Every year, India produces more engineers, economists and statisticians than those who could be productively employed. (Iravani 2011)

Pull factors are those facilities present in the destination country which attract an individual to leave behind their home country and stay in the host country. Prominent pull factors include better income, better quality of life, better environmental standards, better research and laboratories facilities, better career prospects etc.

In their study on the return intentions of Chinese students in United States, Cheng and Xu (2015) noted the following reasons given by respondents for continuing their stay in United States: Gain international experience, Academic freedom, Children’s education, better quality of life, better career prospects, and political freedom, intention to immigration and family and friends in US.

The same study also reveals the factors which prevent the Chinese students from going back to China. The authors created the following table to highlight the prominent factors such as Low income, bureaucracy and organizational inefficiency, opportunities in the area of expertise, lack of social security, political pressure and less than satisfying social and cultural life. (Cheung and Xu 2015)

Reverse pull factors are those factors which attract the individual to return back to their home country after having spent a few years of education or professional work abroad. Both India and China have been witnessing strong reverse pull factors in the recent years due their growing economies and deliberate policies by governments to attract the talent back. This phenomenon of return is similar to what South Korea and Taiwan witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s as their economies were growing.

As noted above, the Chinese case of Brain Drain is of the kind “migrate then educate”. Chinese students go abroad to study and then work for some years to gain working experience in an international setting. Few of them decide to stay abroad while others choose to go back to China. This type of migration is highly beneficial for China’s development in a globalized Chinese economy, as it provides a pool of talent which has awareness of international standards of work in different sectors like academia and business. In 2016 alone, 544,500 Chinese students went abroad while 432,500 returned after overseas study. The number of students returning after studying abroad has been steadily rising since 2013. (ICEF 2018). The vast opportunities offered by the growing Chinese economy and state’s policies are both responsible for this reverse migration.

The Technology sector is the largest sector drawing overseas Chinese returnees, accounting for over 15% of all those who go home. The increasing global prestige and presence of technology-based Multinational Chinese companies such as Tencent Holdings, e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, media aggregator Toutiao, machine learning based ByteDance, Artificial Intelligence based startup Cloudminds, and search engine Baidu are a major factor in drawing overseas Chinese with experience in international business. Further, in many instances overseas Chinese are achieving tremendous success as independent innovators and entrepreneurs in the Chinese economy. (ICEF 2018)

Even before the establishment of People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese government had realized the importance of learning Western science and technology for their National development. During 1950s and 1960s China sent thousands of their students to the Soviet Union and East Europe to study advanced science and technology and most of them came back after their studies. After the adoption of reform and open door policy in 1978, the need for personnel trained in western science and technology was felt even more acutely. Between 1978 and 1988 more than 60,000 students and scholars went abroad and most of them returned after their studies. (Chang and Deng 1992)

But things changed after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, as the emigrants felt threatened to go back to China fearing they might be looked upon as objects of class struggle. They lost confidence in the Chinese government and were reluctant to go back. The government also tightened the emigration of students and introduced compulsory national service periods of five to seven years in order to go abroad. This dampened the student’s desire to emigrate (Zweig 2006). Further, many of the host countries extended the Chinese students’ Visa and allowed them to live after their studies were finished. Some countries even gave them permanent resident permits. (Chang and Deng 1992).

Quickly recognizing the lack of skilled manpower, Chinese government decided to soften its restrictions on emigration of students. Instead the government started to encourage students to go abroad and then attract them back into China. Deng Xiaoping in his last speech in 1992, emphasized the need for China to continuously send students abroad to study. (Cao 2008). Following Deng’s direction in 1992, Chinese state has adopted many policies to attract Chinese emigrants.

The highly equipped Indian cities such as Hyderabad, Bangalore and Gurgaon with better infrastructural and connectivity facilities is also a major attraction for them to return. The returnees find it comfortable to live in these cities and to work in their respective sectors. They also make use of their established international connections. This has widely been reported as the phenomenon of “Brain Gain”. (Chacko 2007)

But in the 21st century a new phenomenon is unfolding where the emigrants are returning back to their home countries, resulting into “Reverse Brain Drain” or “Brain Gain”. This phenomenon is driven by a combination of factors including the market forces, improved research facilities and deliberate policies laid out by governments to attract the overseas talent. Those who return bring back their international experience, knowledge of new technologies and research methodologies, have better global networks.

However, the improved political and economic conditions at home has still not deterred the emigration in the first place. The number of students migrating overseas for higher education continues to increase which shows that they are not satisfied with the available education and research facilities available at home. The number of working professionally migrating for better career opportunities also remains high as indicated by the leading number of H1B visa recipients from India and China. It is clear that in both India and China the academia, market and the government need to do a lot more to prevent emigration in the first place and attract even more number of their talented diaspora to the home countries.

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