Beijing Beckons Its Scientific Exiles


By Bruce Einhorn Regular readers of this column know that favorite topics recently have been how the Chinese government has been trying to control what people in China can see and say on the Internet and how Beijing's critics have been trying to avoid the censors. Throughout September, authorities were busier than ever, zapping Google and other "dangerous" Web sites in advance of the big Communist Party powwow in November that will decide who rules the world's biggest country over the next few years.

Given that the government of President Jiang Zemin is intent on making China a science and technology powerhouse, these efforts to stifle the Net might seem more than a little self-defeating. When it comes to technology, how can China be anything more than a bit player if the top minds at Tsinghua University -- Beijing's equivalent of Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- can't get to MIT's Web site?

Yet Shoucheng Zhang doesn't buy the idea that scientific leadership and Internet censorship are mutually exclusive. "You can clearly have both," he says. The 39-year-old China native is a professor at Standford's physics department and at Tsinghua. After all, he says, Soviet physics research flourished during the darkest days of Stalinism.

WORK-AROUNDS. Zhang admits that censorship of the Net can be inconvenient for China-based scholars who want to see what their American counterparts are doing, but he says the problem can be overcome. If scientists in China can't access a U.S. university's Web site, they can easily reach sites that have archives of academic papers. Such science-only Web sites are "accessible by everyone," says Zhang.

He's uniquely positioned to talk about the overlap of the Chinese and Western scientific communities. When he was just 15, the state decided that he was smart enough to skip high school. He studied German for a few months and then went to the Free University in Berlin. Leaving Germany, Zhang went to the U.S. and received his PhD at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, in 1987. Since 1993, he has been at Stanford, one of only a handful of Chinese professors to win tenure.

Zhang also is vice-president of Hua Yuan Science & Technology Assn., a San Francisco Bay area nonprofit that promotes academic and commercial exchanges between the U.S. and China, focusing on ethnic Chinese in the U.S. Zhang says Hua Yuan is modeled after a Taiwanese organization that got its start in the late 1960s with the goal of attracting talented Taiwanese back to the island.

"EXPLOSIVE" GROWTH. Hua Yuan, launched three years ago, has a similar goal, but this time the idea is to get people to return to the mainland. The organization has about 2,500 members in the U.S., and it's now forming chapters in China. Hua Yuan sponsors conferences in the Bay area and brings delegations from China to visit. The next big conference will be in November in Santa Clara, Calif.

"Basically, what we see is a tremendous opportunity, just like Taiwan in the early 1970s," Zhang explains. "The economic growth in China is just explosive. A lot of Chinese students came to the U.S., a lot of them stayed in the U.S., worked in industry, and some of them, like me, became academics and leading scientists in the U.S. There is a tremendous need among the community here to facilitate that interaction."

Besides being a full professor at Stanford, Zhang is also a "chair professor" at Beijing's Tsinghua University, China's most prestigious school for science, where he spends his summers. The chair is endowed by the Cheung Kong Foundation, controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing.

NEW MODEL. The foundation, which started endowing chairs three years ago, also is trying to attract Chinese talent back to the mainland from the West. Its work dovetails with Beijing's goal of raising the country's profile in science and technology by larding attention on a few elite universities, rather than taking a more widely targeted approach.

"China's focus is, within 50 years, to compete with MIT and Stanford," says Zhang. "They can't do that if they spread out resources too thinly." In the 1950s, he points out, "the university system was modeled on the Soviet system, where every university had a specialty. About five years ago, China decided to make major reforms to organize the university system according to the U.S. model and consolidate them so that they become a comprehensive university in its true meaning."

Zhang says a lot of U.S.-based Chinese scientists and engineers are indeed going back. "Over 70% of my closest friends at leading Bay-area institutions have returned to China over the last six years. A large number of them, they go back to represent a multinational company -- let's say Intel or Applied Materials," Zhang explains. "Some of them went back to start their own companies. Another trend already starting is that people are going back to become professors. That, so far, has been very slow, because the economic compensation in China is not up to the U.S. level. The gap is a factor of 10."

BUILDING A TRADITION. Thanks to Li and his Cheung Kong chairs, that gulf is starting to close -- a little. Li's foundation puts up grants of about $12,000 per year, which is matched by the local universities. That's peanuts, of course, for a university in the U.S. But in China, $24,000 can go a lot further. "When you live in China, that is still pretty good [when] compared to what there was before," says Zhang. "To use that to attract people to go back is difficult, but it's happening already."

According to Zhang, China's scientists are not yet making much of a dent in academia. "Chinese professors are still underrepresented worldwide at academic conferences. Scientific research needs a lot of tradition," notes Zhang. "A tradition takes a long time to build. When you look at the publication record [for Chinese scientists in prestigious journals], it's still very low."

Zhang, who's also the senior adviser for science and technology at the Zhangjiang Science Park in Shanghai, knows China still trails Japan or the West. "In science, China overall at the present stage is still a little bit behind," he says. "But they are catching up very fast. Tsinghua is comparable to the middle range of U.S. universities, middle to top. Over the next 50 years, China can have one or two truly world-class universities."

Sure, the political climate -- not to mention the inferior facilities and pay at Chinese universities -- may lead to potential recruits staying in the West. But no matter. China has the law of large numbers on its side. Notes Zhang: "China, just because of the sheer size, can be self-sufficient in terms of talent." Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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