Do you live in a brain drain society (like China) or a mind gathering—or mind well—society (like the United States)? The Atlantic’s James Fallows has been living in China for many years, and recently made this astute observation:
Because 95 percent of the world’s population lives outside U.S. borders, the majority of the world’s talent will also start out residing abroad. But immigration has brought in a disproportionate share of the nation’s creative talent. Half of the members of the National Academy of Sciences are foreign-born. America benefits from attracting more than our “fair” share. China has never won a Nobel Prize in the sciences; the Chinese-born scientists who received prizes were honored for work they did overseas, largely in the United States.
He is the first Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Prize of any kind while residing in China. He is the fourth person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison or detention, after Nazi Germany’s Carl von Ossietzky (1935), the Soviet Union’s Andrei Sakharov (1975), and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi (1991). Liu is also the first person since Von Ossietzky to be denied the right to have a representative collect the Nobel prize for him.
Obviously, China’s promise for the 21st century will be squandered—as it has been for countries in the oil rich regions of the Middle East—if it cannot fully release the minds of such people as Liu Xiaobo. A country doesn’t just need to develop oil wells and resources to prosper in the 21st century—it needs to develop mind wells: places where minds are at full and safe liberty; where they want to gather, and freely do gather, and seek to gather.
Like, say, San Francisco. When you see, for example, Shanghai Tower going up in China, remember that this astonishing architectural achievement is the product of an American architectural firm based in San Francisco. In terms of a country’s long-term health, it’s far better to be the home of the architectural firm and not the architectural firm’s latest project. You will know that America is in real decline on the day that its architectural firms no longer want to be based on its soil. And you’ll know that China is on a sustainable rise when the world’s most imaginative minds seek, without fear, to gather there, and live there.
That time is not now.
After the Chinese regime’s grotesque Nobel Prize debacle, you may not read any articles explicitly documenting China’s brain drain, but it will be going on just the same. Why? Because every unusually intelligent, imaginative, and creative person living in China has just witnessed someone like them being aggressively shut down. And this means that, in the privacy of their thoughts—thoughts they may never share with others—they will be seeking escape. That escape might take the form of emotionally checking out intellectually, imaginatively, or creatively, and so arresting their potential. Or it might mean that they will try to game the system, pretending loyalty to it even as they seek avenues for doing, reading, and thinking those things that are forbidden. In any case, they have been confirmed in their fear, and entertain fantasies of getting away from the regime that elicits it. And one day they just might get away—and decide never to go back.
Isn’t that how you would respond?
Here is Liu Xiaobo’s best friend, writer Yu Jie, speaking in a recent interview with Spiegel Online:
Yu: Compared to the previous Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin, his successors Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are much stricter and more conservative when it comes to controlling the media and publishers. Under Jiang there were still free spaces. Back then, I could teach at some universities and publish articles.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are a Christian. How important is your faith to you?
Yu: It makes me stronger in my opposition to the Communist Party. In 2005, for example, I was interrogated by the police for 14 hours. They threatened me, saying they could simply make me disappear. But I remembered the Biblical phrase: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul.”
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If Prime Minister Wen were to suddenly call you up, what would you say to him?
Yu: I would suggest that he liberalize the press and publishing, so that my book about him could be published in Beijing.
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul. For its astonishing economic growth, China, as a nation, has grabbed the easy and low-lying fruit (drawing cheap labor to cities, opening reliable markets for Westerners to invest in, etc). But at some point the regime will have to stop being an intimidator—and therefore, a stifler—of the minds and souls of its best and brightest. The country’s progress depends on it.
China must become, in other words, more like America, a nation that is saturated with wealth producing and attractive mind wells.