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With cash and perks, China woos the brightest tech minds

Beijing's push comes as the US cuts science funding and tightens visa rules

The "Wuzhen Summit" brings international tech companies and institutions to the eastern Chinese city of Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, each year to discuss such topics as deep learning, AI and cybersecurity.   © AP

HONG KONG -- For decades, the U.S. has attracted the best and the brightest from all over the world. Is it possible that one day soon China can credibly make that claim?

Some U.S. experts think so. They point to initiatives like China's "Thousand Talents" program, which is meant to bring the sharpest scientific minds to China. Patrick Sinko, a Rutgers University distinguished professor, described Thousand Talents as a "cherry-picking brain drain."

Such outreach programs come as the U.S. has been steadily cutting the budgets of organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation -- a trend that is expected to get even worse under the administration of President Donald Trump. The U.S. is also making it harder for foreign nationals to receive permission to study or work there.

Sinko knows of what he speaks. He told a congressional hearing in March that he was recruited as a "high-end" expert by Fuzhou University, in the southeastern province of Fujian. "Right now it is almost a free-for-all," he said. "I could interact with China and none of you would really know -- and I think that is an issue."

Bigger paydays

Henrik Christensen, director of the Contextual Robotics Institute and a professor of computer science at the University of California, San Diego, said the U.S. is "starting a trend of not attracting necessarily all the best talent."

"If you go and you become a researcher in China today, you can triple your salary tomorrow," he said.

In addition to generous pay, the government provides startup capital to entrepreneurs whose ambitions are in line with national priorities, according to Ben Shobert, founder of market-access consultancy Rubicon Strategy Group and an associate with the U.S. National Bureau of Asian Research.

China also offers powerful perks to encourage foreign companies to set up units in the country, work in joint ventures with local businesses and research institutes, and cooperate with university research centers, wooing them with tax incentives and free -- and often state-of-the-art -- facilities.

These efforts are reminiscent of what Japan did during the bubble years, when it attracted foreign scholars, scientists and engineers to corporate research institutions and academic institutions. More recently, Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia have been pursuing a similar strategy by opening satellite branches of leading U.S. universities. Many of these efforts have not worked out, often because the cultural differences -- such as the Japanese emphasis on hierarchy -- were too difficult to transcend.

Moreover, China is but one of many countries that have such ambitious schemes today -- even tiny Sweden has such plans.

Smaller welcome mat

But Beijing is determined to make the campaign work, displaying far more flexibility with those it courts than it allows most of its own people. It also helps that its efforts come at a time when the U.S. is no longer seen as welcoming as in the past.

The fact that so many Chinese students still wish to study in the U.S. and major in the so-called STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and math -- so vital to developing tomorrow's technology should be a source of pride for Washington. But rather than extending a red carpet to such individuals -- many of whom then want to stay in the U.S. after graduating -- the government makes it difficult for them.

It is a telling sign of the times that many Chinese students who go on to work at Y Combinator, the leading U.S. incubator, say they were attracted in part by an unusual job perk: access to immigration lawyers employed by the Silicon Valley company to help them stay in the country.

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