China’s Quiet Brain Drain (Contrasted with America’s Mind Wells)

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.

Of course, this week someone Chinese, though not a scientist, did win a Nobel Prize. His name is Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic. And he sits in a Chinese prison. Wikipedia says this of Liu Xiaobo:

He is the first Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Prize of any kind while residing in China.[9] 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. 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to China’s Quiet Brain Drain (Contrasted with America’s Mind Wells)

  1. paulmanfredi says:

    Agreed that the recent Liu Xiaobo incident was a debacle, but not one we’ve not seen before. For those interested in Chinese writers in particular, Bei Dao is another good case in point.
    That said, what also bears pointing out is that Liu Xiaobo is far from the creative mind you make him out to be. Creative (which might not be confused with “peaceful” though he may be, he’s a far cry from an important figure in contemporary China, or at least was not until the Nobel committee decided to elevate him to global dissident status.
    And as to good minds in China, my experience (from living there and visiting often over the last 20 or so years) is that there are many, and many who’s ideas are so much more current that Liu’s there’s virtually no comparison. Liu was a major figure for what is typically referred to as “Cultural Fever” 文化热 , a major stage in contemporary China’s intellectual development that peaked in the late 1980s. He’s had no major impact then, and not because of imprisonment.
    Moreover, I find more and more Chinese fed up with the sad state of intellectual affairs in this country and returning to China (again, in the world of letters, Leo Lee is a prominent case in point). Their work, in the long run, may be the more important globally speaking. We’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, we can be certain the New York Times and the like will be too busy with marginalia such as Liu Xiaobo to notice what’s actually happening in China.

    • santitafarella says:


      Your response is interesting, and especially helpful because you’ve lived in China. If you return to this thread and have a moment, could you share where, in China, there are good mind wells—places where intellectuals, scientists, and creative people are gathering, and gathering safely, to think freely and interact with a lot of imaginative energy (as in California’s Silicon Valley and its great universities, like Cal Tech)? It’s one thing to see America’s current economic situation as dicey, and its mass media culture as inane, but why would any gifted writer want to try and exercise that gift in China as opposed to taking a teaching position at, say, UC Berkeley?


  2. paulmanfredi says:


    The problem with your question and with our ensuing conversation is that we are already falling into a sort of zero-sum game which pits the US against China, something already suggested in your blog post. These are completely different places at completely different stages of cultural (broadly construed) development. They also have much to offer each other. The “argue with one’s feet” (a decision about where to reside) can only take us so far. I think for those of us engaged with China in significant ways the desired position would clearly be in-between. As I often say, China for the food and culture, US for the air and water.
    But even objectively (if I might attempt that claim), this particular stage for China is one of massive intellectual and cultural exploration and dynamism. China’s intensity and variety of development on all levels is simply unparalleled in the world today (with the possible exception of India). That massive and often pathetic attempts at controlling this development are always underway by Beijing authorities is nothing new. If I might add, I write often about this dynamic on my own blog at

    But to answer your question (with the opening caveat in mind): as to “places” I’d suggest the 798 cultural district in Beijing; As to institutions, any number of them including Beijing and Tsinghua Universities, of course. As to individuals, I’d suggest Wang Hui 汪晖, who is a frequent visitor to the Bay Areaa anyway.

  3. santitafarella says:


    Thanks for giving me a route in on these questions. I’ll definitely be checking out your blog. It’s extremely encouraging that a close observer of the Chinese scene, and someone with direct knowledge of it, sees intellectual and creative dynamism in China. I was afraid that you might write back and say that China has no obvious dynamic hubs akin to Silicon Valley. And I hope that you are right that the authorities are not especially effective at putting a lid on things they don’t like.

    As for the zero-sum tone of the above post, it’s not intended. I wish China well. I want the United States to be a cheerleader for China’s progress. What would be awful for the world is for either China or the United States to suffer economic decline. The way to avoid that for both countries is freedom and free trade.

    I actually did, just this morning, write against the zero-sum mentality that adheres to talking about China. See here:


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