China aware that economy goes beyond science and technology

The city of Shanghai, China. Like USA, China has started attracting talents, most who settle in cities. Photo by XN Iraki
A news item appeared in this newspaper on January 6, 2018. It was originally from BBC. It had a simple title, “China offers 10-year visas to ‘high end talent’.

When I shared it on WhatsApp groups, there were no comments, surprisingly. Yet, that was the most important news from China this year. It is more important that reporting that China might not buy US Treasury bonds or is building artificial islands.

A document available online “Evaluation Criteria for Foreigners Employed in China (Trial)” gives more details of what China is looking for and the qualifications. I am not sure when the final document will be available. Let us go through the list slowly.

There are several categories of personnel China has made eligible for 5-10 year visas. Category A includes “scientists, science and technology leading talents, international entrepreneurs, special talents and other foreign high-end talents urgently needed in the economic and social development of China.” The use of the term “green channel “connotes some learning from USA green card system.

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Category B which is longer seeks those with much sought after awards both internationally and in their home countries. Examples include Nobel Prize winners, winners of US National Science Medal, and similar medal winners from France, UK and Japan mostly in science, technology and mathematics.

Also targeted are academicians of National Academy of Sciences, and Engineering, members of ISO and other internationally renowned academic institutions. The emphasis on science and technology is telling.


China seems to realise that the economy goes beyond science and technology into management and even humanities and games. They also target former R&D members associated with the world’s top 500 companies, former senior managers of well-known international financial institutions and more curiously directors, deputy directors, professors and associate professors of world famous colleges of music or fine arts. Or artists associated with world famous opera houses.

Winners of awards in literature, music, film, television, drama and advertisement are welcome, too. Athletes in Olympic Games, World Cup, World Championships and other important international events together with coaches are welcome too.

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Also on the list are innovators and entrepreneurs.

Why is China taking such drastic steps to lure high end talents to her shores? Why now? China must have learnt from the decline of another superpower, USSR, or Soviet Union which split into 15 republics around 1991.

USSR had all the hardware including nuclear weapons. But they failed to renew themselves by attracting new thinking, new talents. They even exported talents. Examples include Igor Sikorsky who developed the helicopter and migrated to USA. More recently is Sergey Brin of Google who was born in Russia. The list can be enriched.

Lots of Kenyans studied in USSR, but they all returned unlike in USA or Europe where many remained. The lack of diversity in USSR may have been its soft underbelly and cause of economic decline.

China has quickly learnt that after the success in hardware, from bullet trains to space probes, the next frontier is the human brain. USA remained a superpower because of recognising the central role brains play in an economy. Is it surprising that top universities are in USA? The brains work better when they are “transplanted” into new places. That is why immigrants even within the same country tend to prosper unlike those left in their villages and hamlets.

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By attracting almost all nationalities under the sun, USA has retained her competitiveness. These men and women bring new thinking, challenge the conventions and keep the wheels of innovation turning. They file patents, start new businesses and win Nobel prizes.

US long realised that you can deliberately attract high calibre talents using different categories of visa depending on your talents. A good example is O-1 visa for individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement in sciences, arts, education, business, athletics etc. H-1B allows US employers to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations. We can add Green Card, which allows you to work and live in USA.

China after reaching a critical growth status, becoming the workshop of the world and spawning global brands like Haier or Huawei has realised it needs new thinking, espoused by new people to compete in the global market. Is this how China will beat USA in her own game?

The opening of China to new talents will help it leapfrog economically. Japan, which until recently was the world’s second biggest economy never opened up like China. The focus on special talents is nothing but brain gain.

The Chinese can also learn from end of WWII. America’s greatest dividend was not war reparations, but brains as German scientists found a new home in USA. Even the designers of US Hydrogen Bomb were immigrants like Edward Teller, from Hungary and Polish Stanis?aw Marcin Ulam.

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Will the Chinese move be the final blow in its contest with USA over global dominance, particularly economically? That will largely depend on how the high end talents fare in China.

Brain has been projected as the next economic frontier. That age has arrived prematurely. Was Uhuru Kenyatta alluding to the same when he suggested that African visitors should get visas on arrival? Was that a bold attempt to attract new brains? Will Kenya one day give Green Cards to the talented from other parts of the world? Is there a policy on that?


Some could argue that with high levels of unemployment, we are unlikely to welcome immigrants. We are already complaining of hawkers from neighboring countries while counties rarely employ outsiders. Rarely do we complain of leaders of Blue Chip firms, even when they are immigrants.

The truth is that high end talents are likely to create new enterprises and more jobs. Think of the top USA firms created by immigrants from Tesla, Apple, Reddit, eBay, Amazon and Google. Think of the enterprises created by immigrants in Kenya. Should we follow the Chinese example? 

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