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The US-China Tech Wars: China’s Immigration Disadvantage

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The US-China Tech Wars: China’s Immigration Disadvantage

How the United States can retain technological leadership despite its demographic deficit.

The US-China Tech Wars: China’s Immigration Disadvantage
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

Earlier this year, a Chinese technology executive published an opinion piece arguing that size is China’s greatest asset in technology competition with the United States today. His argument was simple: Innovation in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence is partly a function of absolute numbers of scientists and engineers, and, as China continues to expand its domestic talent pipeline, its strength in numbers will soon far exceed that of the United States.

Many in Washington seem to agree. The White House’s education strategy draws motivation from China’s rapidly increasing number of university graduates. Experts lament the United States’ dependence on international talent and draw analogies with Sputnik to call for crisis-level educational spending levels similar to those in the post-Sputnik era.

But while a predominantly internal-facing workforce strategy worked for the United States during the Cold War, when it roughly equaled the Soviet Union in population, today it faces a rival four times its size. Domestic investments are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient.

The best way for the United States to make up for its demographic deficit is to capitalize on China’s persistent difficulties in attracting international talent. China has prioritized global recruitment for nearly two decades, but programs such as Thousand Talents have seriously struggled to attract and retain top talent from abroad. This is in large part due to Beijing’s insistence on increasingly tight domestic controls. Unless the Communist Party changes its ways, these recruitment difficulties will continue hampering Chinese research and innovation for the foreseeable future.

But instead of leveraging the main comparative advantage it has, the United States, due to problems both new and old, has become increasingly unwelcoming to international talent. At a time when leadership in emerging technologies is central to national security and when international talent is central to that leadership, immigration reform must become a U.S. national security priority.

China’s Domestic Numbers Advantage

China is betting on talent in its drive for technological advancement. Xi Jinping has long called talent “the first resource” in China’s push for “independent innovation,” a sentiment echoed in the Chinese government’s National Medium and Long-term Talent Development Plan (2010–2020), which stated that talent was core to the country’s social and economic development and set detailed national talent targets. In December 2018, the Ministry of Science and Technology lauded the country’s “systematic, unprecedented in intensity” talent reforms as instrumental in recent Chinese breakthroughs in fields ranging from quantum information science and cloning to GPS systems and mobile payments.

U.S. officials similarly recognize the importance of talent to technological leadership. The National Security Commission for Artificial Intelligence stated in its report to Congress last month that talent is “the most important driver of progress in all facets of AI.” Recognition of talent’s importance has, in turn, led to mounting concern in the United States and the West more broadly about China’s growing strength in numbers.

There are good reasons for this concern. The number of science and engineering (S&E) undergraduate degrees granted per year in China more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2015, according to the National Science Board, growing from 360,000 to more than 1.7 million. In that same period, U.S. numbers grew from 500,000 to 770,000. Projections also suggest another 300 percent increase in Chinese graduates in the coming decade, compared to predicted increases of just 30 percent in Europe and the United States. The consequences are likely to be far-reaching: by 2030, China and India alone are projected to account for 60 percent of the world’s undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degree holders.

To be sure, some of these trends can look starker than they really are. The quality of China’s STEM education remains uneven, and snapshot analyses of China’s workforce are often tainted by exaggeration. One extensive study in 2009 looked at the pool of 1.34 million undergraduate engineers China claimed to have graduated in 2006, and found that only about 25 percent actually went into positions or programs fit for qualified bachelor’s-level talent after graduation. But university rankings and other indicators show signs of quality improvement, and it is inevitable that the size of China’s S&E talent base will soon surpass — if it hasn’t already — the domestic talent base of a country with less than a quarter of its population.

China’s Difficulties Attracting Global Talent

Yet in contrast to China’s steady progress on the domestic education front, its efforts at international talent attraction have been much less successful.

China clearly appreciates its need for global talent. It is implementing immigration reforms, and it has hundreds of international talent recruitment programs that are meant to spot scientists and engineers with in-demand skills and incentivize them to work with or for Chinese institutions. The most widely known of these is the Thousand Talents program, which launched in 2008 and has, by some estimates, thus far recruited more than 7,600 scientists and engineers.

However, illustrative of China’s struggles to tap into a truly global talent pool is the fact that nearly all of these recruits have been Chinese nationals — fewer than 400, or around 5 percent, were non-citizens. Looking beyond talent programs, China issued only 1,576 permanent residency cards in 2016. This was more than double what it had issued the previous year, but still roughly 750 times lower than the United States’ 1.2 million.

China’s recruitment difficulties are not due to non-Chinese scientists thinking China is bad at science. In 2012, the prestigious science journal Nature asked 2,300 international (mostly Western) STEM scientists a range of questions about their fields and careers. Almost 60 percent thought China would have the greatest impact on their fields in 2020 — far more than thought the same of the United States (36 percent). Nevertheless, only 8 percent said they would consider moving to China, compared to 56 percent for the United States.

Instead, the most important barriers to international talent recruitment for China are political and cultural in nature, and many of them will be very difficult for Beijing to change.

One especially important barrier is the centrality of political relationships in the Chinese workplace and the lack of merit-based evaluation. Arriving international scientists quickly need to “learn to handle the role of politics in the life of a Chinese lab.” Many complain that “getting funded or promoted often depends on forming personal relationships with local research administrators or party officials,” which puts foreigners — and even Chinese returnees — at a distinct disadvantage compared to locally-trained researchers. Returnees going into the private sector often face similar issues. And while there are pockets of reform, including a small number of schools run by foreigners, the current political winds in China are blowing in the opposite direction.

Other issues, such as language barriers, pervasive internet censorship, and environmental quality also seriously complicate China’s ability to attract and retain international talent. Chemist Olaf Wiest, for example, took a part-time rather than a full-time position at Peking University in large part due to China’s “Great Firewall.” Giulio Chiribella, an Italian physicist recruited to Tsinghua University, left after three years due to uncertainty over career stability, frustrated efforts to learn Mandarin, and not wanting to raise a child in Beijing. Ulf Leonhardt, a prominent theoretical physicist, left South China Normal University after just one summer when he discovered that substantial portions of his grant money and partner’s salary were being diverted by administrators. All were Thousand Talents recruits.

China’s Future Prospects

China’s difficulties in attracting international talent will hamper its ambitions for technological leadership. Even as its domestically-trained workforce grows, Chinese leaders and commentators have identified workforce shortages as a long-term obstacle to success in key areas identified in Made in China 2025, including quantum science, biotechnology, and AI, where the talent gap is said to be 5 million. Shortages are especially acute for high-end jobs that require extensive experience, for which candidates can generally only be found abroad. In semiconductors, China is spending large amounts to lure experienced talent from Taiwan.

A lack of international talent can also harm innovation in China. Researchers have documented a robust relationship between international mobility and scientific productivity, attributed in large part to immigrant scientists’ ability to bring together ideas from different places, or “knowledge recombination.” Diversity is also known to lead to better team performance on the kinds of complex, creative tasks central to success in the knowledge economy. If China continues to struggle attracting internationally mobile researchers and diverse R&D teams, it will be a less innovative place.

Chinese returnees — citizens who go abroad for study or work and then return to China — could theoretically compensate for some of these shortfalls, but it remains to be seen whether they will in practice. Despite nearly two decades of intense recruitment efforts, stay rates among Chinese nationals getting Ph.D.s in the United States are not decreasing. Statistics on returnees show that the most talented Chinese individuals often either do not return or do so part-time, which experts attribute mainly to workplace politics. And surveys and other studies of those who do return also show that many returnees are dissatisfied with their careers in China. The number of Chinese students going abroad means there will always be individual examples of successful returnees, but returnees alone are unlikely to be numerous or high-quality enough to fully compensate for the lack of other international talent.

Ultimately, many of the barriers that hamper China’s international talent push are closely tied to the CCP’s insistence on tight control over all aspects of society. As long as these realities persist, China will continue to struggle to attract both the Chinese and non-Chinese international talent it needs to fulfill its technological ambitions.

Retaining America’s Talent Advantage

The United States, in contrast to China, has long been a hub for top international technical talent. Nearly half of recent American Nobel prizes in STEM fields were won by immigrants, and immigrants also founded more than half of the country’s highest-value technology companies. Two-thirds of computer science graduate students at U.S. universities were born abroad, as were more than half of those employed in the U.S. labor force who hold advanced degrees. Long-term stay rates for international Ph.D. graduates from U.S. STEM programs stand above 70 percent in most fields, with Chinese graduates typically staying at rates closer to 85 percent.

Those worried about China’s growing technological prowess often also lament U.S. dependence on international graduate students and workers, and call for greater domestic STEM investments. Such investments are essential and long overdue — the number of American graduate students in computer science, for example, has barely increased since 1990. But by themselves, domestic arguments miss a fundamental demographic reality. During the Cold War, when American and Soviet  population numbers were closely matched, the  United States could rely on a predominantly homegrown workforce strategy. Today, with a rival four times its size, that is no longer true. Domestic and international talent policies must go hand in hand if the U.S. is to retain its technological leadership position.

But instead of capitalizing on the U.S. immigration advantage, policymakers have let the country’s immigration system atrophy. Numerical caps on green cards and temporary visas have barely changed since the 1990s, while the U.S. economy has more than doubled in size. Due to the mounting backlogs caused by these caps, an Indian STEM Ph.D. applying for a green card today would face a wait time of around 50 years. Restrictions adopted in the last few years have caused further problems, leading a Chinese state-run consulting firm to conclude that “the Trump administration’s immigration policies have provided China opportunities to bolster its ranks of high-end artificial intelligence talent.”

These problems have not persisted for lack of ideas; there are many research-based templates and proposals for high-skill immigration reform. What has been missing is a sense of urgency, and the realization that high-skill immigration reform is not just an economic issue but also — now that the United States faces a serious technology talent competitor for the first time in decades — a national security one. Security concerns around U.S.-based Chinese researchers in dual-use fields are well-founded, but risk mitigation strategies such as building better open-source intelligence capabilities are not incompatible with immigration reform.

A decade ago, longtime Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew predicted that China would not overtake the United States in the 21st century because China’s “Sino-centric” culture would force it to rely mainly on its domestic workforce, while the United States’ openness meant that it could draw the best and brightest from a global talent pool of 7 billion and stimulate innovation through diversity. His argument still rings true today. Whether it also will another decade down the line is up to U.S. policymakers.

Remco Zwetsloot is a Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology and a Research Affiliate at the University of Oxford’s Center for the Governance of AI.

Dahlia Peterson is a Research Analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.